Noe Valley Voice July-August 1997

Neighbors in a Dogfight Over Noe Courts

By Mark Robinson

The scene at Noe Courts is just short of idyllic on this sunny Sunday in mid-June. A toddler plays on the rubberized jungle gym, while Mom keeps a watchful eye. On the grass, a shirtless guy throws a red ball and his little blond dog retrieves it, tail wagging. A couple of boys shoot lazy baskets on the blacktop court.

But appearances can be deceiving. This one-acre patch of green at Douglass and 24th streets is the site of a heated turf battle. On one side are the dog owners who regularly let their animals romp on the grass. On the other are the parents of young children, who say their kids can't play safely because of too many dogs.

In early June, the concerned parents seemed to have the upper hand. At their request, Joel Robinson, head of the city's Recreation and Park Department, decided to ban dogs in the park. In a June 9 letter, Robinson wrote, "I have already directed staff to fabricate signs stating, `No Dogs Allowed,' which should be installed in the very near future."

Within a few weeks, police had also begun warning dog owners not to take their dogs to the park.

Those actions stirred up dozens of dog owners who have come to depend on Noe Courts as a place for socializing and exercise -- for both canines and humans. They hope to reverse the city's decision.

"I think the dog owners got blind-sided by this whole thing," says Anita Chabria, a 25th Street resident who has gotten used to running her 6-month-old lab, Turtle, at the park. "We're not trying to be militant or unreasonable, but we do want to fight to keep the park open to dogs."

Until mid-June, when police began issuing warnings, dogs and their owners would gather daily at the park, mostly before and after work. While the dogs played and took care of business, the owners -- who often knew each other only by the names of their dogs -- would chat and enjoy the fresh air. "My dog is going through withdrawal," said Jeff Troiano, who was in the habit of walking his dog from his Church Street home. "I take him outside now and he tugs at the leash and heads for Noe Courts."

Now more than 100 dog owners have signed a petition asking Robinson to reconsider the ban. Most, like Elizabeth Street resident David Lewis, feel that no dogs in the park is a "draconian measure."

Lewis says the great majority of dog owners are responsible, clean up after their pets, and keep them under control. He'd rather see stiffer penalties for those dog owners who don't. "Let's punish the bad guys and not the good ones!"

For their part, neighborhood parents seem willing to fight tooth and claw to keep the ban in place. They complain that groups of 10 or more unleashed dogs have made it difficult for kids to play in the small park and that children have been frightened and knocked down by dogs running in front of them. They also say the dog owners have become so aggressive, they've started verbally harassing and threatening the Hispanic nannies watching kids at the park. Last month, police received reports of at least two incidents.

"There are places that dogs should be, but this is not one of them," says Susan Levinson, who lives on 24th Street with her two children, ages 8 and 9. She points out that there is a larger park a few blocks away -- upper Douglass Park -- where dogs are welcome to run. "This space is too small for dogs running around off leash. When you get 15 dogs--Great Danes, Rottweilers -- I don't think they can coexist with kids playing."

Lisa Nicol, who lives a half block from Noe Courts, agrees. She says her sons, ages 7 and 10, used to play in the park, but refused to stay long because of the dogs.

"They either couldn't get on the grass, or when they did, they'd get dog poop on their clothes and shoes," she said.

The current uproar over Noe Courts is only the latest round in a dog vs. kids saga that has been playing out for more than five years. The conflict has raised issues of citywide park policy and has turned normally friendly neighbors into bitter adversaries.

A little history: In the late 1980s, residents near the park asked the city for help in fixing up the tennis and basketball courts. When the job was finished, there was some money left over. Residents decided to use the cash to put in a fence around the sandbox area, always a popular spot for toddlers. That fence ended up being cheaper than originally thought, so the contractor agreed to erect gates at the entrances to the park and enclose the entire block between 24th and Elizabeth streets.

"Once the fence went in, it became a much safer place for kids -- and for dogs to run off their leash," recalls Steve Kolm, a 24th Street resident who helped organize the fence project.

After a few years, the park had become such a popular place for canine cavorting, however, that the grass was being trampled and destroyed, and kids were being driven out. Noe Courts was literally going to the dogs. (See Voice, December 1994.)

With the dog owners and parents at odds, community police officer Lois Perillo stepped in to help mediate. Under the direction of a professional arbitrator who volunteered his time, the dog owners and parents held a series of intense sessions and eventually hammered out a six-point compromise. Among its provisions: Dogs could run free in the park only during certain hours (before 9:30 a.m. and after 5 p.m.), dog owners would clean up after their pets, and dogs were not to interfere with other park users.

The agreement was published in the May 1995 Voice. It was also posted at the park by those who drafted it.

But both sides say that the "Noe Courts Cooperative Use Agreement" has been largely ignored in recent years. One of the reasons is that it was never officially posted by the Rec and Park Department. Also, there's a whole new contingent of pet owners and parents who have no idea the compromise ever existed.

That's why the dog owners hope a new agreement that brings current users into the fold will satisfy everyone. "I totally understand where the parents are coming from," says Nina Dietzel, a Hoffman resident who is helping to organize the dog owners. "But you can't exclude one part of the neighborhood."

The options for keeping dogs in the park, Dietzel says, might include strictly limiting the hours for dogs, fencing the basketball court, and taking up a collection among dog owners to pay for reseeding the park's grass, which has been killed off in spots because of dog urine.

The dog owners maintain that they are an asset to the park. Their presence wards off graffiti and drug-dealing and helps keep litter and debris picked up, they say. And ultimately, they argue, people with pets have as much right to use the park as other city residents.

Dietzel and other dog owners have heard about the nannies being harassed at the park. They denounce such tactics. "We want to do this as good neighbors on the highest possible grounds," she says.

Dog owners also note that the gradual restriction of dog runs in city parks and in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is putting too much pressure on the few remaining dog havens. Closing Noe Courts to dogs will only make the situation worse, they say.

But neither the concerned parents nor city officials are buying these arguments.

"This park was never established as a dog run. It's just too small," says Rec and Park's Robinson, who decided to ban dogs after visiting Noe Courts in June. "It's got to be strictly for dogs or strictly for people."

And as for crime and graffitti, the parents say they'll take their chances. "I just don't buy it," Levinson says. "I've lived in this neighborhood for 14 years. Crime has never been an issue."

The dog owners plan to take their case to city officials, starting July 10 with a meeting before the Board of Supervisors' subcommittee on health, safety, and the environment.

But even Perillo, who helped negotiate the agreement between the parents and dog owners two years ago, has given up hope of an amiable compromise this time around.

"Nothing is going to make everybody happy at this point," she says. "I'm just saddened that it didn't work out."

Just as we put this issue to bed, the Voice learned that fierce lobbying on the part of dog owners -- some of it directed at the mayor's office -- had convinced the city to back off its total ban on dogs at Noe Courts. However, all dogs must now be on leash while in the park. A spokesperson from the Recreation and Park Department said new signs saying "No Dogs Off Leash" would be posted soon.