A dog in the fight

Residents weigh in on draft plan for off-leash areas

Residents on both sides of the fence came out last month to tell the Seattle Parks Board what they think of the draft master plan for off-leash areas, with dog owners barking loudest during a two-hour public hearing. 

Many dog owners and canine-centric business owners complained that the plan lacks a commitment to any pilots or other programs, seemingly making due with the annual $104,000 budgeted to Seattle Parks and Recreation for maintaining the city’s 14 current OLAs and making improvements where possible.

SPR superintendent Jesús Aguirre said the Seattle City Council directed the parks department to work with the Coalition for Off-Leash Areas to improve the plan prior to the Sept. 22 meeting.

COLA executive director Cole Eckerman gave a brief description of the addendum to the plan the group and SPR agreed upon prior to public comment.

That includes clarifying language in the draft plan regarding SPR’s support for OLAs and also its commitment to seeking new land for off-leash areas, should funding improve. Aguirre said another change made in June was to have a single point-of-contact within SPR for OLAs.

Pilot sites will be supported under the addendum, but only in fenced areas. A number of Seattle residents commented last Thursday that SPR should consider off-leash hours at parks, especially neighborhoods far from one of the city’s 14 OLAs, which range from 28 acres in Magnuson Park to one-tenth of an acre at Kinnear Park. An ad-hoc committee described in the draft plan would vet pilot proposals. Aguirre said SPR does not support letting dogs off-leash in unfenced areas of public lands due to issues surrounding enforcement and potential conflicts.

Wallingford resident Emily Friedman said she felt ideas about designated off-leash hours in parks was dismissed without thorough research, adding of a Volunteer Park pilot in 1997 that the public space was much different then. Friedman said it’s insulting to suggest small and large dogs shouldn’t mix.

Another part of the addendum would include a public engagement process for the development of up to four pilot sites for off-leash areas, which Aguirre said would take significant community outreach to identify target sites in each city council district.

“Together, COLA  and Seattle Parks and Recreation can build an equitable OLA system that is easily accessible to every dog owner in their local community,” Eckerman said. “We can only achieve this though if we have adequate funding and more strategic, objective and measurable approaches to land uses.”

Eckerman said COLA is also drafting grant applications to fund a feasibility study before OLAs policies are formally adopted.

Aguirre said he believes the revisions under the addendum will have a significant impact on the plan as a whole.

Many proponents of increasing accessibility and the number of OLAs in Seattle wanted to see more water access for their dogs, which would be supported under the addendum, but Aguirre cautioned state regulatory agencies control shorelines, so such decisions would not fall squarely on Parks and Recreation.

While dog owners were plentiful at the Sept. 22 meeting, there was also a contingent of Seattle residents that did not want to see canines take precedence over people at city parks.

“This meeting seems to be rather a love fest for COLA and for dogs,” said Eliza Davidson, who is also a member of the Volunteer Park Trust.

One OLA in Volunteer Park east of the Seattle Asian Art Museum drew complaints from 15th Avenue East neighbors regarding dog feces not being picked up and noise. The OLA was relocated, but was later shut down by a court order due to Parks and Recreation not subjecting the property to a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review.

Davidson said she likes dogs, but chooses not to own one. She said parks space should not be taken away and given to dogs and their owners, which was met with heckling that had to be tempered by parks board chairman Tom Boyers.

Deborah Niedermeyer said there needs to be better enforcement when it comes to people letting their dogs off-leash in parks where it is prohibited, as those dogs sometimes cause confrontations with dog owners who have their pets on a leash.

“I won’t let my dog off leash,” she said, “that’s illegal.”

Queen Anne resident Mark McDuff said he’s tired of driving 2,500 miles per year to take his dog to an off-leash area, because none are close to him, passing many parks he can’t use.

“I’m tired of hearing dogs don’t pay taxes,” McDuff said. “Well, neither do basketballs, but that doesn’t stop us from building basketball courts.”

Justin Green said he’s seen damage caused in park planting areas by dogs allowed off leash. If SPR is lacking funds, he suggested more enforcement of dogs without city licenses and charging fees for using OLAs.

There are 39,000 licensed canines in Seattle, and Aguirre said it’s obvious there are many more dogs than that living in the city. Having people license their pets would provide better data for SPR to use in making decisions, he added. According to COLA, there are 1.5 dogs for every child in Seattle, which is roughly around 150,000 canines.

Alan Deright said that’s where SPR should get its funding, from fining owners of unlicensed dogs. But he doesn’t support OLAs, he said, adding he was very happy to see them disappear from Volunteer Park.

“Off-leash areas are in my basket of deplorables,” Deright said.

Those same sentiments were shared by Ellen Taft, who heads up the Citizens for the Protection of Volunteer Park group. She said she’d rather see money spent on drug rehabilitation, the homeless, daycare for children and activities for at-risk youth.

Jessie Dye said both of her dogs are licensed, but she’s going to continue letting them run off leash in city parks until something is done about the shortage of OLAs in Seattle. She also said more beach access is needed for dogs.

Ellen Escarega, who chairs the COLA board, said the all-volunteer organization is just looking for legal ways to represent the one-in-four Seattle households containing dogs. 

“We’re not entitled,” she said. “We’re lacking legal land.”

Capitol Hill resident David DiMarco said if there are more dogs than children, maybe parks should be turned over to canines and OLAs reserved for the children, a rather “dystopian idea,” he admitted, but he feels like he’s “living in a dystopian city.”

Capitol Hill has two options for OLAs, one being I-5 Colonnade Park and the other Plymouth Pillars Park, which DiMarco called a “gravel urine receptor.”

There will be no other public hearings on the matter, and recommendations from the Seattle Parks Board are expected to come down in November. In order to comment now, comments can be sent torachel.acosta@seattle.gov, with a deadline of Friday, Oct. 14.