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Los Altos council approves off-leash dog park pilot program

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Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Dogs are set to be allowed off-leash in Los Altos soon, under a pilot program.

After more than a decade of discussion, debate and research, Los Altos pet owners may finally have a place to let their dogs out.

The city council approved the implementation of an off-leash pilot program at Hillview Baseball Field at its meeting Tuesday (Nov. 10), with the start date and length of the trial period to be determined.

Although staff had also recommended approving an off-leash hours program at Heritage Oaks Park, the council opted to operate the pilot program solely at Hillview, after hearing from neighbors living next to the park who voiced opposition.

“I think one pilot is something that we should focus on right now, and Hillview is it,” said Councilwoman Lynette Lee Eng, who served on the Parks and Recreation Commission for 11 years prior to joining the council. “I think that’s sufficient. I don’t support Heritage Oaks in the future as well.”

Los Altos doesn’t currently have such an area for dogs in city parks, nor does it allow for its 3,800 licensed dogs to be off-leash. Instead, dog owners – an estimated 35-40% of homeowners in the city, per a city staff report – must take their dogs to parks in neighboring cities like Mountain View for them to roam free. The city has explored the issue since 2008, with the current council hearing proposals from the Parks and Recreation Commission starting in February of last year.

“I looked at your calendar,” resident Frank Martin told the council. “I was 66 when you started, and I’m now 78. I don’t know if we’ll ever have dog off-leash hours in Los Altos, but I hope we do.”

This year, the Parks and Recreation Commission considered establishing a pilot program at Lincoln Park and McKenzie Park in addition to the two sites discussed at Tuesday’s council meeting. But after holding several public workshops, the commission decided against recommending the use of Lincoln and McKenzie.

Most of the 22 residents who called in during the public comment session of the virtual meeting lived near Heritage Oaks Park and opposed the pilot program at their neighborhood park. They reiterated some of the concerns noted by the Parks and Recreation Commission’s Dog Park Subcommittee in an earlier report this year: the park’s close proximity to their residences and potential contamination of Permanente Creek, which runs through the park in south Los Altos. Nearly 250 neighbors, park users and parents whose kids participate in a soccer league that plays at the park signed a petition opposing the program.

“Heritage Oaks is just too small to accommodate off-leash dogs and other activities at the same time,” said resident Betty Christopher, who lives a block from the park. “I feel that I will not be able to enjoy the activities that I used to be able to enjoy at the park if dogs are at the park, off-leash. Please don’t take my neighborhood park away from me.”

Logistics

For now, Hillview Baseball Field, located behind the Los Altos History Museum near city hall, will be the lone site in Los Altos for dogs to roam off-leash. Because all city park turf areas are closed for annual maintenance until January, the earliest the pilot program can begin is February. Staff recommended that the off-leash hours be limited to 6-9 a.m. In the evenings, the hours would be 7 p.m. to sunset during weekdays and 5 p.m. to sunset during weekends. Council directed staff to ensure the off-leash hours would not interrupt Little League games on the baseball field. The field is currently used for dog obedience training, though some concerns were raised in staff reports about potential damage to the field.

The motion carried with Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins dissenting. Bruins, who is termed-out in a few weeks, wanted to see a bolder approach by having a majority of the city’s parks involved in the pilot program. She said that because dog owners are already letting their dogs off-leash, the city might as well attempt to control it with an official program. Bruins also opposed any fencing-in of parks, because it would make the city’s already small park spaces even smaller.

“To put (the pilot) in one place, we might as well continue to drive dogs to Mountain View or someplace else,” Bruins said. “I don’t think it’s a valid test. We need opportunities to exercise our dogs locally, to minimize car trips and minimize the burden on one or two parks.”

Councilwoman Anita Enander agreed with Bruins, though she supported the motion.

“Everything we’re hearing from people who have off-leash hours is that the fears we have don’t turn out to be true,” Enander said. “We have to have the courage to say, ‘Let’s push the envelope. Let’s try this. We don’t have to stop it after six months. We can stop it after two weeks if it’s a fiasco.’”

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