Noe Valley Voice May 1999

Two Local Parks May Get Dog Runs

By Sally Smith

Come next year, dogs may be able to run and jump for frisbees -- sans leash -- at two Noe Valley parks. That is, if the city follows the lead of its Dogs Off-Leash Task Force, a 14-member advisory group that's been wrangling over the issue since last October.

In April, the task force issued a report recommending that 20 city parks, including Noe Courts and Upper Douglass Park, be added to the 18 existing dog exercise areas in the city. The proposed dog runs now face many hurdles at City Hall and the usual tug of war between advocates for kids, dogs, trees, ball fields, and open space at the parks.

Says Tom Mills, a member of the task force, "My guess is that it will take six months of hearings before any of the dog areas gets approved for a trial run."

At Noe Courts -- the one-acre park at 24th and Douglass streets -- the report calls for dogs to be free to roam off-leash only at certain times, before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m. It also suggests that the southeast corner -- including the children's sandpit and a large section of the grass -- might be designated a dog-free zone.

"There is an ongoing discussion around fencing this area so that it could be made completely off-limits to dogs," says Mills. (Current rules at Noe Courts are that pet owners must keep their dogs on leash at all times.)

Up the hill at Douglass Park, the proposed dog run would be in the flat grassy area near the 27th Street entrance to the upper tier of the park (not the lower Douglass Playground). "The city could make sure it wouldn't interfere with the ball field, and there would be signs and a clearly marked border between the dog run and the rest of the park," says Mills.

The new area would replace the existing dog run, which now skirts the rugged cliffs above the ball field. "The dog run we have now is, quite simply, unsafe for people and dogs. There's even a sign that says 'Cliff Unstable -- Stay Back.'"

As for Upper Noe Recreation Center, Noe Valley's other major park (at Day and Sanchez), Mills says the task force came up with no plans for a dog run there. "Upper Noe never got mentioned specifically as an off-leash area. It wasn't on the list."

He noted, however, that Glen Park was included in the 20 sites. The proposed dog run would be along Alms, the gravel fire road between Elk Street and the preschool in the park. Suggested hours for allowing dogs off-leash at Glen Park were before 8 a.m. and after 5 p.m.

Mills was the secretary for the task force, composed of dog owners, advocates for children, and representatives from city agencies such as the Board of Supervisors, Rec and Park, and the Police Department. He drafted the report, adopted at a public meeting attended by more than 100 people at the Hall of Flowers.

Mills, a Jersey Street resident often seen walking with his beagle Dino, also serves as head of the Noe Courts Coalition, a group that has been lobbying for two years for more off-leash play areas.

Mills said the citywide task force "concentrated on putting the exercise areas in places where there were the most dogs. Those were Noe Valley and the Castro, the Haight, and the Mission. Our research showed that in the 94114 zip code, we had four times the number of households with dogs as with kids. In Noe Valley, we've got settled gay couples, newly married couples, families with young children, a fair scattering of 20- to 30-year-olds, and older empty-nesters. All of these groups are likely to own dogs," Mills maintains.

He's proud to have won "a major victory for off-leash recreation," but knows the task force may meet some resistance.

In fact, some park users already have their backs up. Several parents watching children at Noe Courts last month said the park was too small to give free rein to dogs. "Letting dogs run around off leash can scare the little kids, and it certainly won't help the poop problem," said one mom, who preferred not to give her name.

Still, the Noe Valley Neighborhood Parks Improvement Association, which looks after both Noe Courts and Douglass Park, has adopted a wait-and-see attitude. "We're sort of taking a neutral position right now. It's simply a proposal, and it has many more hoops to go through, and a long public hearing process," said Elizabeth Street resident Dorthe Deubler, a spokesperson for the 110-member group.

Deubler -- who has two children, 5-year-old Rebecca and 2-year-old Ryan -- hopes park users can work out a compromise. "Our group encompasses both dog owners and 'kid owners,'" she explains, "and we think Noe Courts can be both a dog play area and a kid play area. Why be divisive?"

Mills, who is a psychiatrist, agrees. "We all have the same interests at heart. We want the park maintained, the crime low, and for everybody to enjoy the park."

The next hearing for the proposed dog runs will take place at a May 11 meeting of the Board of Supervisors' Recreation and Parks Committee (City Hall, 1 p.m.). If approved by the committee -- composed of Supervisors Amos Brown (chair), Mark Leno, and Gavin Newsom -- the report will move on to the Rec and Park Department and the Parks Commission for hearings. Any dog run okayed by the commission will face a yearlong trial, before being made permanent.

Meanwhile, the Noe Courts Coalition, which has a mailing list of 200 ("all Noe Courts users," says Mills), will try to put its best foot forward at the park. The group posted a sign that asks dog owners to pick up after their pets and "keep your dogs away from the sand playpit, whether there are children present or not. Nothing else is so provocative to parents."

The sign also recommends that dog owners come to the park as close to sunrise and sunset as possible, when fewer children are using the playground.

The group is also co-sponsoring with the Noe Valley Neighborhood Parks Association a Noe Courts Clean-up Day, on May 15, from 9 a.m. to noon.

Mills asks volunteers to bring your work gloves and "wear clothes you don't mind getting dirty." Refreshments and brooms will be provided.

Dogs may attend, but only on leash.