(Courtesy photo)

Rec and Park bypasses community before changing dog park hours

One of the foundations of our government is the idea that the public gets to weigh in on policy matters.

One of the foundations of our government is the idea that the public gets to weigh in on policy matters. City departments don’t just spring significant changes on the public at the last minute. Yet that is exactly what’s happening at a popular dog park.

The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department didn’t hold a single community meeting to ask whether the public wanted to drastically change the hours of operation for the Upper Douglass Dog Play Area. Most people only discovered that the Department was considering the change when they saw it listed on the agenda for a Rec and Park Commission Committee meeting.

Upper Douglass, located at the corner of 27th and Douglass Streets, has been a legal off-leash area since 2003. The former quarry had been a ballfield, but the drainage was so bad and the field so consistently muddy, Rec and Park deemed it unacceptable for kids. So, they gave it to people with dogs.

In the years since, the park has developed a large and loyal group of supporters. For many, Upper Douglass is their neighborhood park, a place to play fetch with their dogs and meet friends and neighbors.

But Rec and Park closes the Upper Douglass Dog Play Area all winter, ostensibly to allow the field to recover from rain and usage. The Department also closes the park every Wednesday. It’s the only park I know that cannot be used for over one-quarter of the year.

In recent years, a small group of park neighbors began to complain about dogs barking at Upper Douglass and, perhaps more importantly, about how hard it has become to find parking nearby. Unfortunately, the dispute has grown nasty, with each side accusing the other of rudeness, incivility, and harassment.

During the most recent winter closure, the neighbors’ group tried to get Rec and Park to close Upper Douglass for a second day every week. The Department said “No.”

Undeterred, the group then tried to cut the hours the park is open. Currently, Upper Douglass, like most city parks, is open from 6 am to 10 pm. The group wants the park only open from 9 am to 6 pm.

Their proposed change would effectively prevent any neighbor who works full-time from walking their dog in the park.

Normally Rec and Park requires a group pushing to restrict park hours to hold at least one community meeting to “gather feedback on the proposed change.” But, in this case, the neighbors’ group told the department that they would not feel safe in a community meeting that included dog park users.

Back in the early 2000s, I attended community meeting after community meeting to discuss designating new off-leash Dog Play Areas. These meetings were often contentious. People who opposed dogs in parks yelled at dog supporters, and vice versa. Rec and Park didn’t run away from conflict, and the meetings, though loud, were safe for everyone.

Yet, the Department apparently decided they didn’t need a community meeting for Upper Douglass. Instead, Rec and Park agreed to let the group pushing for the reduction conduct its own online survey to gauge public interest. Not surprisingly, the group claimed the small survey showed support for reducing park hours.

With public comment at the meeting overwhelming opposed to the change, the Committee voted to restrict the park hours – 7 am to 7:30 pm. – not as much as the neighbors’ group asked for, but more than park users wanted. This proposed change will go before the full Rec and Park Commission on June 20 for final approval or rejection.

But the Committee put the closure motion on the Commission’s consent calendar, a spot normally reserved for non-controversial agenda items, not something as contentious as this. It should be removed from the consent calendar so the Commission can fully debate whether to reduce the hours at Upper Douglass, as well as how the Department handled the issue.

With this proposed closure, Rec and Park is setting a precedent that a city department doesn’t have to hold even one community meeting when considering a highly controversial change and can rely instead on a biased survey conducted by one side of the issue. If the City can do it to the park users at Upper Douglass, they can do it to you at your park, your neighborhood, or your issue.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

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