Noe Valley Voice September 1997

Dogs March Against Leash Law at Noe Courts Park

By Mark Robinson

Protest marches, petition drives, police intervention -- it all happened in the dog wars of Noe Valley this summer.

The tussle centers on Noe Courts, an oasis of green at the corner of Douglass and 24th streets. Back in May, city officials banished dogs from the one-acre park. Then in June, they relented and allowed canines to return, but only so long as they stayed on leash.

Now Recreation and Park chief Joel Robinson says he'll monitor the park carefully to make sure dog owners comply with the rules. If the dogs get out of hand, he may propose a total ban this fall.

Neighborhood parents prompted the original ban when they complained that off-leash dogs were frightening their children, interfering with play, and soiling the grass.

"We wanted to see if the dog owners could be responsible before we went to the extreme measure of banning the dogs altogether," Robinson told the Voice. He acknowledged that a complete ban would require action by the city's Recreation and Park Commission.

Dog owners won't take that lying down. They've gathered more than 900 signatures on a petition asking for the right to let their dogs run off leash at Noe Courts before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m. They've also promised to clean up after their pets and to keep them under voice control, out of the children's play area, and away from the tennis and basketball courts.

To push their demands, they've organized the Noe Courts Coalition, launched a newsletter ("The Scoop"), and even created a telephone information line.

And on Aug. 16 they held a peaceful demonstration dubbed the Mutt March. About 60 people and almost as many dogs paraded down 24th Street, handing out fliers to the crowds lolling in the Saturday-morning sunshine.

"I want him to be able to run and play. It's such a part of my life," said Carolyn Luetkes as she marched with Sam, her chocolate labrador retriever. "It's good for him, and it's good for the community, because all these neighbors have gotten to know each other through this park."

Luetkes said the new Noe Courts restrictions had not been as hard on Sam -- who gets to run off leash while in doggy day care five days a week -- as they had been on other dogs and owners. Many have begun sniffing out new places for off-leash frolicking, which has only put more pressure on the city's already dog-crowded parks.

More off-leash dogs are showing up -- illegally -- at sections of Dolores Park and Douglass Park, and in the play yards of Noe Valley schools like Alvarado and James Lick, said community police officer Lois Perillo.

A few owners are still allowing their dogs off leash at Noe Courts, prompting police to issue a slew of warnings and at least one $23 citation, Officer Perillo said.

Nevertheless, the dog lovers hope to convince the city's Board of Supervisors to pass a resolution recommending the Noe Courts time-sharing plan to Mayor Willie Brown, who has the power to rein in the Recreation and Park Department.

"We're consciously taking a reasoned, legislative approach," said Tom Mills, an active member of the coalition. "We want to avoid a provocative, civil-disobedience route, which can be really divisive." That's why the group decided to discard the original name for their parade down 24th Street: Critical Mutts.

At press time, a group of coalition members were gearing up to meet with Supervisor Leslie Katz to discuss their proposal. "This has become a big issue for a lot of people in Noe Valley," said Kate Dyer, a lawyer and coalition activist. "It's not going away."

Meanwhile, the parents who requested the dog ban in the first place say things at the park have gotten better -- and they want it to stay that way. They, too, have organized, forming a group called the Noe Courts Preservation Committee. And they submitted their own petition with more than 300 signatures to the mayor's office in mid-July.

Members of the anti-dog group say they're not interested in negotiating a return of off-leash privileges. Such a compromise was worked out two years ago, only to fall apart this summer.

"It didn't work the first time, and it will not work now," said Susan Levinson, who lives on 24th Street with her two children, ages 8 and 9. "This park is just too small."

She said her group was still working to ban dogs from Noe Courts. But they hoped to reach out to the dog owners with a proposal to fix up the official dog run above Douglass Playground (at Douglass and 27th). Right now, the run amounts to little more than a rough hillside trail, part of which skirts a fence with a sign that reads, "Hazardous Cliffs, Stay Back."

Daniel McLaughlin, another parent who has worked to ban dogs from Noe Courts, acknowledged that the dispute had driven a wedge between normally friendly neighbors.

"And that saddens me," he said. "I hope we can work together."