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Shores park dogged by conflicts

DEL MAR — After a nearly two-hour public comment period, City Council opted to create an interim use policy for the Shores property that will hopefully strike a “pawsitive” balance between dog lovers, baseball players and canine-wary adults and children.
According to a staff report, dog owners frequented the site because the private Winston School, which is located on the property, allowed their animals after school hours.
The dog area eventually migrated to an area on the north side of a portable fence installed by Little League, which had been using the upper field for years.
After the city purchased the property in 2008, a risk management report identified the fence as a safety hazard.
When it was removed, the baseball field was increasingly used as an off-leash dog area.
The coaches saw this as a safety issue and conflicts began to arise.
Jeff Bernstein, a Del Mar Little League board member, said he told coaches to politely ask owners to keep their dogs off the field until the players left the area.
“I can’t stress strongly enough that most of the dog owners understood the safety concerns and complied with appropriate measures to limit interaction between the dogs and the kids during those limited times,” Bernstein wrote in one of more than 85 e-mails sent to council regarding the issue.
“Unfortunately, a few select people among the dog owner contingency chose not to recognize the obvious safety concerns,” he wrote.
Little League eventually opted to leave the park because of conflicts and safety concerns.
In an e-mail to council members, resident Sue Harris described Little League representatives as “ruthless and aggressive.”
“What they fail to recognize is that dogs are people too!” she wrote. “And for most of the dog owners, whose kids have grown and gone, their dogs ARE their kids and should be given EQUAL treatment.
“I am very upset by the discrimination against dogs and their freedom that was demonstrated by that group,” her e-mail stated. “Our dog owners are all very nice, soft-spoken, professional, and intelligent community members.”
Almost 40 residents sent a copy of the same e-mail that stated the loss of the dog park would “devastate me, devastate my family” and “be cruel and harmful to my dog’s health and well being.”
Others claimed Little League wanted exclusive use of the upper field, an accusation Little League board member Steven McDowell denied.
The issue wasn’t entirely about ball players versus dog owners.
“Please put the interests of kids ahead of dogs at the Shores property,” wrote resident Steve May. “I keep reading … about the Little League, but for me it is more about having open space that welcomes kids as a place to play with other kids and parents, learn to ride a bike, etc. not just organized sports.
“The presence of dogs and what they leave behind (despite conscientious owners) does not welcome kids,” he wrote.
The Del Mar municipal code currently only allows off-leash dogs seasonally at North Beach. The city had not been enforcing the law at the Shores property and actually provided bags for dog owners to pick up after their pets. Unknown to city officials, signs indicating leashes were required had been removed.
The risk management report also noted dog excrement as a potential health hazard, but the Oct. 12 staff report stated “the vast majority of dog owners do clean up after their dogs.”
Some of the 30 speakers at the Oct. 12 meeting expressed concerns about residual excrement, while others noted the problem also exists in areas where dogs are on leashes and no one seemed concerned about that. Others said their children played at the Shores park for years and never contracted any diseases.
The Parks and Recreation Committee proposed creating a separate off-leash area in the
lower parking lot by scraping asphalt, planting grass and installing a temporary fence. It was estimated that up to 12,000 square feet could be made available with this option.
Nearly all of the 18 speakers at a Sept. 14 Parks and Recreation Committee meeting, and the majority at the recent council meeting, supported a shared-use plan presented by Friends of Del Mar Parks, a citizens group that helped raise funds when the city purchased the property from the Del Mar Union School District.
That plan, which is the one council opted to go with, proposes converting the area back to the way it was two years ago.
“Instead of letting any group take advantage of the way the political winds are flowing and instead of letting some groups win because some other groups lose, shouldn’t we be trying to do what’s best for all of Del Mar?” asked Warren Spieker, who helped broker the compromise. “The shared plan does that.”
Spieker said for the most part, it also complies with the city’s resolution when it bought the site “to preserve the current open space and recreational uses of the property, including the ball field.”
The shared use plan calls for installing a safe, removable fence and temporarily expanding the grass 6,500 feet north of the fence.
It would also add signage indicating off-leash dogs are not allowed in the fenced area and only allowed outside the area during certain times. Spieker said Friends of Del Mar Parks is committed to raising funds for the improvements and maintenance.
“Citizens frequently talk about doing things the Del Mar way,” Spieker said. “This is the Del Mar way.
“No one group is going to get everything they want,” he said. “Isn’t that the definition of compromise?”
Staff will return at a future meeting with a defined policy for council consideration and possible adoption until a master plan is completed, which is likely at least two years away.