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Del Mar debates Shores use

DEL MAR — With the majority of council members agreeing staff was barking up the wrong tree in its effort to create an interim use policy for the Shores property, the group was sent back to the drawing board at the Dec. 5 meeting to craft another plan that will hopefully placate dog owners, baseball players and anyone else interested in utilizing the upper park area.
The city already spent more than two hours discussing the subject at an October meeting, during which dog owners asked council members to allow their pets to run off-leash while Little League representatives and other park users cited health and safety issues if the practice continued.
Although the Del Mar municipal code currently only allows off-leash dogs seasonally at North Beach, the law was not enforced at the Shores property and, unknown to the city, signs indicating leashes were required had been removed.
Little League, which had been using the field for years, opted to leave the park because of safety concerns and conflicts. Families with small children and small-dog owners complained about large off-leash canines.
Some residents said they wouldn’t have contributed to the purchase of the now city-owned property if they knew it was going to become a dog park, while others said they wouldn’t have donated if they knew they couldn’t bring their pets there.
The Winston School, a private facility located on the property, has priority over all uses. The city doesn’t want to adopt a permanent solution until a master plan is developed for the site, which it purchased for $8.5 million in 2008 from Del Mar Union School District.
After the October meeting, during which four potential plans were introduced, council members directed staff to create a proposal showing specific layout of a shared park space, potential fines for violations and a financial plan, developed by Friends of Del Mar Parks, to pay for temporary improvements.
Mark Delin, assistant city manager, presented four new options Dec. 5 that included two versions of a fenced area created by staff, and prohibiting off-leash dogs and a time-sharing proposal, both of which were submitted by community members.
Staff was recommending an extended off-leash area in the north part of the park that would include a chain-link fence to separate people from animals and reduce liabilities.
Although many park users, including Little League, supported the plan, it wasn’t considered the best solution.
“No one likes this,” Delin said.
“It’s not perfect but it works,” resident Wade Walker said.
Most dog owners supported a time-sharing concept that would allow off-leash dogs daily from 4 p.m. to dusk from November through February and from 5 p.m. to dusk from March through October.
It also included the use of an inexpensive, temporary, easy-to-remove secure fence rather than chain link for use by Little League.
Resident Larry Brooks said historically, fences have had little success and “are the antithesis of community.”
“I’m not a big believer in fences,” Councilman Carl Hilliard said, adding that the site was not intended as a dog park but for use by the entire community.
Hilliard researched a shared-use park in Encinitas that only allows off-leash dogs during certain hours on specific days. It’s successful, he said, but it’s much bigger and isn’t used by a school or Little League.
“It’s a hard balance,” Hilliard said. “It really is.”
Councilman Mark Filanc, who also opposed the chain-link fence, agreed. “No matter what we do we’re going to irritate somebody,” he said.
“You guys put us in a tough position,” Filanc said to those attending the meeting. “Quit it,” he joked, trying to add some levity.
Councilman Terry Sinnott said he, too, is not a fan of fences but acknowledged the dog area needed to be segregated by a barrier. Councilwoman Lee Haydu said she supported a fence for the off-leash area.
“We’re forgetting other people who want to use the park,” she said. “We’ve got to recognize the families with small children.”
Haydu, who received letters from residents who said they stopped taking their children to the park, said a woman was bitten by a dog walking through the area and not all feces are picked up by owners.
Haydu said the city couldn’t just react to people who attend council meetings.
Mayor Don Mosier said he had concerns with both plans. He feared a fenced area for off-leash dogs will attract people from outside the city, which could result in the area becoming overused, “trashed and unattractive.”
He said it also devotes a large area to a specific group, which is not a good use of a community park. But it is necessary to separate large dogs from small children, he said.
Friends of Del Mar Parks agreed to fundraise to pay for a chain-link fence, asphalt removal and other improvements. The staff recommendation would have kept the status quo for 90 days while the group was raising money.
“Let’s do the less expensive experiment first,” Mosier said before council directed staff to create a proposal for shared time based on the plan used in Encinitas. If adopted, it will be evaluated in approximately six months.
Hilliard and Filanc agreed to work with staff to create the resolution, which will include fines for violators.
“This problem has dragged on,” Mosier said. “I want this park to serve our residents” and not become a destination off-leash dog park.