Los Altos council shoots down flashing stop signs, program for off-leash hours at parks

Shoup Park
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Pet owners walk their dogs in Shoup Park. After a Los Altos city subcommittee developed a pilot program to test off-leash hours, the city council asked to limit the number of parks and hours.

When considering the fate of the new flashing stop signs near Egan Junior High School and a pilot program testing off-leash dog hours at parks, the Los Altos City Council’s mantra at last week’s meeting was hearing out the needs of residents.

After doing so, the council voted to remove the red flashing signs at Los Altos and West Portola avenues and urged further exploration of a proposed pilot program to allow dogs to run off-leash at some parks.

Early in the Feb. 12 meeting, Councilwoman Jan Pepper said that after a discussion on the city’s transparency at the council’s recent annual retreat, she and Councilwoman Anita Enander would be spearheading efforts to improve communication among staff, the council and residents to ensure that everyone feels included in decisions impacting their neighborhoods.

Ending things on a good note

The issue of active civic participation was largely illuminated by the ongoing battle between residents and city staff who organized the Safe Routes to School efforts involving six intersections throughout the city. The intersection of Los Altos and West Portola avenues seemed to be the most problematic, leading to the installation of flashing stop signs.

Mark Goodman, who lives at the corner of that intersection, objected to the prospect of LED lights flashing around the clock. He rallied his neighbors to fight the proposal, an effort that he called a “nightmare for (him) for almost 12 weeks.”

Goodman and several of his neighbors claimed that they either did not receive the yellow notification card the city sends out to residents who live within 500 feet of any project or that the notices they saw – including one posted in the Feb. 12 Town Crier – were not descriptive enough. After weighing in at council and Complete Streets Commission meetings, the neighbors successfully blocked the installation of the signs, for which holes had already been dug and cement poured.

In a good faith effort to help the city, Goodman and his neighbor Mike Ellerin have signed up as the first of six volunteers who will fill in as needed as crossing guards at the busy intersection during school hours.

“If an illness or a flu wipes out six people, or a third of the staff, we want to have six people that are trained and certified ready to jump into an intersection,” Ellerin said.

All five councilwomen voted to authorize city staff to negotiate the contract with the project contractor to eliminate the red flashing signs. Other elements of the Safe Routes project – such as new curb ramps for Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility, piano key-style crosswalk markings and bulb-out islands – will remain.

Retrievin’ a solution

Parks and Recreation Commissioner Grace Lilygren and city staff liaison Manny Hernandez spoke in front of the council to sum up the last 18 months of work Lilygren and the Dog Park Subcommittee had put in to develop a recommendation for a pilot program to test off-leash hours for dogs at parks.

In the end, the recommendation was to direct city staff to establish a pilot program proposal at existing city parks and work with them to identify the best locations and hours. A pilot program would enable staff to consider risk mitigation strategies and learn from the experiences of neighboring agencies with off-leash programs, such as Mountain View and Foster City.

The commission zeroed in on off-leash hours for dogs and possible fenced-in dog parks after a March 2018 survey of residents drew more than 800 responses. Results revealed that 78 percent of those surveyed supported a fenced-in dog park in Los Altos, and 56 percent supported specific off-leash hours at a non-fenced-in park. However, council members pointed out that the results neither validated the percentage of those surveyed who lived in Los Altos nor the percentage of those surveyed who owned dogs.

Due to numerous concerns about the possibility of an off-leash hours program, the council asked city staff to return with a pilot proposal limited to no more than two parks – the suggested six parks was excessive, Councilwoman Neysa Fligor said – and set the hours outside of those when children would likely be at the park.

City Manager Chris Jordan dispelled the concern of devoting staff time to something not listed as a council priority for the year, estimating the pilot program would take no more than 20 hours of staff time. However, Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins said she would only sign on with the program after an “assessment of determination.”

“The question I have of my colleagues is, if we were going to move forward with a pilot, does the majority up here have the political will to see this thing through?” Bruins asked. “We have developed a culture in Los Altos where we encourage or respond to a petition. … If this council’s reaction is to suddenly pull it out (from) staff and the commission and bring it back to council and we are going to just kill the darn thing, because instead of looking at the 30,000 residents we represent, we look at the 200 or so that signed the petition … I’m not interested.”

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