If the recommendations of the Los Altos Parks and Recreation Commission are followed, the days of off-leash hours for dogs at Hillview Baseball Field are numbered.
Commissioners voted 4-2 last week to recommend to the city council ending the pilot program at the field, instead suggesting further exploration of other off-leash locations. Council members are scheduled for further discussion of the program and the commission’s recommendations at their meeting next Tuesday. The council last month opted to extend the off-leash program to Nov. 15, when all city fields are closed for winter maintenance.
Accompanying the Oct. 13 commission meeting was strong public feedback that included numerous complaints as well as vocal support for keeping the off-leash program. Included for commissioners’ review was a list of 304 dog owners, some of whom touted the social benefits of a gathering place for making friends.
But commissioners Teresa Morris and John Corrigan, who headed a subcommittee on the pilot program, concluded there were enough negative impacts to warrant discontinuing the off-leash hours at Hillview. Concerns ranged from neighbors’ complaints over noise to field damage and unruly dogs.
Commissioner Jeanine Valadez, a longtime dog owner, pointed to problems that included a lack of secure fencing and damage to a field that is used by Little Leaguers to play baseball. She noted that dogs dig and owners fail to pick up their dogs’ feces.
“Sports parks and dog parks do not mix,” she said.
According to Donna Legge, the city’s recreation and community services director, the location has resulted in “negative incidents.”
“It is clear the need for a dog park in Los Altos is great, however, placement is essential,” she wrote in a staff report. “A vocal minority of dog owners may sway public opinion over those residents that live by, walk through, or use the park for other purposes. Animal Control is concerned that when the Los Altos Community Center is open, reports of negative incidents will increase.”
The Hillview pilot program was all that remained among several options considered by the commission over the last few years. Residents in neighborhoods near each targeted park rose up in opposition.
“We shifted from it being an ideal location where nobody had a problem with it to a less-than-ideal location,” Morris said of the Hillview site.
In search of a solution
Commission chairman Pete Dailey and Commissioner Yong Yeh were in favor of continuing the program at the field. Yeh reminded the commissioners that it took years and numerous meetings just to settle on Hillview for the six-month trial period. Based on neighborhood opposition at every location discussed, Yeh believed that nixing Hillview would mean the end of a dog park and off-leash options in Los Altos.
Added Dailey: “If we shut this program down, there is no guarantee there will be any solution for dog owners anytime in the future.”
But Valadez and Morris emphasized that other solutions were possible and could be acted on in a timely manner.
Valadez favored fenced-in dog areas, even ones where mobile fencing could be used. She said she could name at least four appropriate locations in Los Altos but did not elaborate where those would be.
Morris cited one possible location near the back of the new Los Altos Community Center. Another possibility mentioned is partnering with Mountain View for use of that city’s off-leash spaces.
One fact on which commissioners agreed concerned the increasing popularity of dog ownership in Los Altos. Valadez pointed to the COVID-19 shutdown prompting a run on “pandemic puppies.”
But even prior to the pandemic, dogs were popular in Los Altos. Statistics aired at a February 2020 commission meeting revealed 35-40% of Los Altos’ 10,700 households owned dogs.
“I’ve lived here for 32 years – I have never seen as many dogs in the city with their owners walking downtown as I ever have in the past,” Valadez said. “It seems we’re hitting this major tipping point, that the city needs to take a very proactive view that the city needs to service those dog owners in terms of providing facilities for their dogs to play. But those facilities must be safe, they must be maintainable and they must be prevalent. I think fencing is a very critical issue.”
“Unfortunately, we’re left with two competing factors,” Dailey said. “One, that I think we owe our dog-owning residents something. We’ve been trying to do something for them for a long time. And then the other one is that we just don’t have an embarrassment of riches in terms of properties (parks) to look at.”
Los Altos has the least park space per capita of any city in Santa Clara County – 45 total acres, working out to 1.6 acres per 1,000 people.
Still, some commissioners felt a dog park solution is out there.
“I think the time is past where neighbors can say I don’t like noise, so I’m not going to vote in favor of a dog park,” Valadez said. “I think there’s a lot of support for dog parks in this city.”
“(An off-leash solution) will not die,” Morris added. “I’ve been working on this for a long time, and I’m very tenacious about getting something done with this.”