Thursday, August 14, 2014

(Santa Clara County) Palo Alto: Council to vote on ordinance to expand Foothills Park

August 14, 2014
San Jose Mercury News
By Jason Green

The fate of a piece of land at the center of recent controversy in Palo Alto could soon be resolved.
On Monday, the City Council is slated to consider an ordinance that would permanently add the 7.7-acre parcel to Foothills Park, a 1,400-acre preserve open only to residents of the city.
The family of Palo Alto Medical Clinic founder Russel V. Lee granted the land to the city in 1981 with the condition that it be used for conservation, "including park and recreation purposes."
The city instead leased the parcel from 1996 to 2005 to developer and adjacent property owner John Arrillaga, who used it for "construction staging," according to a critical report released in June by the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury.
Arrillaga eventually offered to purchase the parcel in the fall of 2012 for $175,000. Although city officials told the grand jury his bid was unexpected and unsolicited, an investigation revealed that they had commissioned their own appraisal earlier that year that came up with a value of $175,000, "exactly the same amount the landowner offered to pay."
The grand jury was similarly troubled that the council met in a closed session to discuss the offer instead of following an established public process for disposing of surplus property.
Prior to the release of the grand jury report, council members Pat Burt, Karen Holman and Greg Schmid proposed adding the parcel to Foothills Park. And on March 24, the council voted 8-0, with Greg Scharff absent, to draft an ordinance to turn it into protected parkland.
"In a city where we've added 8,000 people over the last decade, to have the opportunity to add a gem of a park to that city is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Schmid said at the time.
In addition to the ordinance, the council requested a list of "major options" for how the land could be used and what they would cost. The city's Parks and Recreation Commission is expected to return with that information next year, according to a report from City Manager James Keene.
Passive parkland, however, may be the only option. A series of easements exchanged between the city and Arrillaga in 1985 limits public access to a 60-foot-wide, steeply sloped section.
"This area would contribute little to a future park use, except as a landscaped area providing an esthetic backdrop to the park," city staff wrote in a 1985 report to the council.
In the meantime, Acterra, an environmental nonprofit, will continue to use a roughly half-acre portion of the parcel as a native plant nursery as it has since 2005, according to the report from Keene.
On Monday, the council is also expected to approve a letter thanking the Lee family for the gift of the land.
"Although this thank you letter is long overdue, please know how truly grateful our community is for the vision and leadership Russel and Dorothy demonstrated in their wish for the Lee Ranch to become a permanently-protected wildlife refuge and park for the people of Palo Alto," the letter states.
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