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Hackles Raised Over New Dog Park Policy
By Erin O'Briant
Dog owners in Noe Valley are growling at the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission for passing a tough leash law in early May. But officials say the new law will lead to more off-leash space for local dogs -- if canine and human residents will just be patient.
The new policy states that in any park less than 10 acres in size, off-leash dogs must be kept in a separate area -- and that area must be at least 10,000 square feet, about the size of 11/2 tennis courts. In spaces larger than 10 acres, such as Dolores Park at 18th and Dolores streets, off-leash areas must be designated, but they are not required to be fenced in. Laws for on-leash dogs remain unchanged.
According to Recreation and Park spokesperson Becky Ballinger, over the next three months, the city will work with members of the community, including dog owners, to decide whether a dog run is appropriate for each park smaller than 10 acres and, if so, where it should be.
Ballinger maintains that "the whole point [of the new policy] is to provide more legitimate off-leash space to prevent conflict in the parks." No tickets for off-leash dogs will be issued for 90 days, she says, and that grace period may be extended if neighbors have not been able to agree on appropriate dog spaces.
But some dog owners are eyeing the new policy with suspicion. "What this means is that the only choice the community has for those [small] parks is to either put in a fenced run or have no off-leash recreation in that park at all," says San Francisco Dog Owners Group spokesperson and former Noe Valley resident Laura Cavaluzzo.
Right now, the only place Noe Valley residents can let their dogs off-leash legally is Upper Noe Recreation Center at 30th and Sanchez streets, which has a fenced-in dog run. It is one of only four parks in the city with a fenced area set aside for dogs.
Ballinger says she believes Noe Valley's biggest park--Douglass Park, at Douglass and 27th streets -- is still less than 10 acres in size, so a dog run will be needed for off-leash recreation there. Like many Noe Valley dog owners, Ballinger does not consider Douglass' current dog run usable, due to the steep, dangerous cliffs that border the run. She suggests that a sitting wall might work well to create a designated dog area at Douglass Park.
As for Noe Courts at Douglass and 24th streets, a fenced-in area would have to be added if dog owners want to let their canines frolic in the park.
A decision about each of the neighborhood's parks, says Ballinger, will be left to members of the surrounding community.
Ballinger stresses that Rec and Park does not want to create dog runs by installing unsightly chain-link fences. "The barriers could be a hedge, a sitting wall, benches -- just some kind of clear delineation," she says.
The department's garden staff is evaluating all potential off-leash sites, she adds, and will make suggestions for creating attractive off-leash areas.
Meanwhile, the Rec and Park staff is drafting a brochure that will explain the new law and how neighbors can submit proposals for off-leash areas. According to Ballinger, the department's general manager is also creating an advisory committee on the issue.
Still, dog owners feel locked out. "The minimal size of these pens is 10,000 square feet, so the smaller parks won't have room for them," says Cavaluzzo. "Nobody wants to give over three-quarters of a park to only dog use."
Her SFDOG group advocates a time-share arrangement or other accommodation instead of designating areas specifically for off-leash dogs, she says. "We don't want separate little facilities that take common park areas that get shared over the course of the day -- we don't want those to be turned into single-use, dog-only spaces," Cavaluzzo says. "There isn't enough park land in San Francisco for that."
"I think there are some parks that probably are not suitable for off-leash areas," Ballinger responds. "I think that can be accommodated by other area parks."
If a quick survey of local parks in mid-May is any indication, many Noe Valley dog owners will turn up their nose at the new rules.
"I'd rather take the ticket than put my dogs on a leash all the time," says 21st Street resident Annette Santiago, who walks her dogs Ashley and Rosa at both Douglass and Dolores parks.
Noe Valley dog trainer Aishe Berger, who often walks her dog Lola at Noe Courts, agrees. "I am an outlaw. I always carry a leash; I'm a 'defensive dog driver,' meaning I look out for any potential problems between my dog and others. And I'll put her on a leash to protect her and others. But for her quality of life, I am not going to leash her in the parks. It's cruel."
A woman walking a large dog at Douglass Park says she, too, has no plans to leash her canine. "I don't think anything much will change. The cops will just come by to make sure everything is okay," she says.
However, Ballinger asks local dog owners to give Rec and Park's policy a chance. "Let us move forward. Don't assume you already know what this will look like before we try to do it."
For a copy of the new policy and more information, visit http://parks.sfgov.org or call the Recreation and Park Department at 831-2750.