The Mission Bay Park Master Plan of 1994 presented a vision of Fiesta Island's future that was general enough for different decisions to fill in the picture. Recently KTU+A, a local "land planning and landscape architecture firm," has been coming up with detailed maps that the Mission Bay Park Committee is calling the Fiesta Island General Development Plan. The latest of those maps, according to the committee, is a combination of current citizen advice and what the 1994 park planners had in mind. Eventually to go before the San Diego City Council, the plan emphasizes acres and acres of new green turf and development of marine "recreational uses" in the southern section of the island.
Even before 1994, however, several groups had established their presence on the desertlike Fiesta Island as though they were prairie homesteaders. Among them were dog owners, who for years have had City of San Diego permission to run their dogs off-leash almost anywhere on the island any time of day or night. (Dogs are permitted elsewhere in Mission Bay Park only if leashed, during night and early-morning hours.)
Last August the Mission Bay Park Committee held a meeting to inform the public of KTU+A's first stab at the Fiesta Island General Development Plan. Dog owners who came to the meeting were enraged when they saw that no space on the maps had been included for dogs. The reason? The 1994 Mission Bay Park Master Plan's discussion of Fiesta Island had not even mentioned dogs.
In the days after the meeting, Brian LaRoche put up flyers on Fiesta Island asking people to contact him if they were concerned about the general development plan. LaRoche, a retired English aviation engineer who calls himself a "layabout," takes a daily walk on Fiesta Island with his dog Jumbo. "At first I could hardly walk 100 yards," he says while showing me his route inside a 96-acre fenced-in space on the island's southwestern side. "But now I walk the area's entire circumference, which is 1.8 miles, and have lost 70 pounds." LaRoche has measured the distance with a pedometer.
The response to LaRoche's flyers encouraged his formation of Fiesta Island Dog Owners, or FIDO for short. After only five months, the organization has nearly 400 members who have been making their unhappiness known to the Mission Bay Park Committee. Rather than see the general development plan come to fruition, the group wants Fiesta Island to remain "wild." Its members ask what sense it makes to spend the $200 to $300 million, depending on how soon the work is done, to build out the plan when people of many interests seem to be able to do what they want on the island already. People now come to Fiesta Island to bicycle, walk, jog, swim, boat, ride horses, practice falconry, shoot off rockets, and participate in the annual Over the Line Tournament.
The Mission Bay Park Committee has taken the Fiesta Island Dog Owners' complaints to heart. Since August the committee has asked KTU+A to offer three new plans. From zero acres for dogs in the first plan, the company has moved in a fourth alternative to 197 acres of leash-free open space and a 66-acre leash-free fenced-in area. (The whole of Fiesta Island is 486 acres.) Currently on Fiesta Island, dog owners have 301 acres of leash-free open space and 96 acres of leash-free fenced space. So the committee's concessions still leave them with a 34 percent loss of leash-free space.
"I am grateful for how the City is changing the plan," says Jean Spengel, a local veterinarian acting as the liaison for the San Diego County Veterinary Medical Association to the park committee. "But if you look at all the major users of Fiesta Island...the dog owners are the largest group by far," she says.
Dogs running in the open-space areas have been hit by cars. So most owners walk their dogs in the fenced area, Spengel tells me, and would be satisfied if the fenced area on Fiesta Island remained spacious enough to take long walks or runs. But there are sometimes good reasons for wanting to have leash-free dogs in the open spaces. When Florence Sloane of the San Diego Sporting Dog Council trains retrievers on the east side of Fiesta Island, she likes to have two to three hundred yards to use without interference. The general rule for open space on the island is that people must have their pooches under "voice control." Sloane is training dogs to respond to hand, arm, and other signals.
Sloane thinks that one reason the Mission Bay Park Committee is adhering so closely to the 1994 concepts for Fiesta Island is they're afraid they might have to commission a new environmental impact report. "I understand how they wouldn't want to spend the money for that," she tells me by phone, "but conditions on Fiesta Island have changed since 1994. There are many more dogs out there now."
Mindy Pellissier is the strongest advocate for dog owners among members of the Mission Bay Park Committee. I reach her at her Ocean Beach business, Dog Beach Dog Wash. "Dogs are so much a part of people's lives nowadays," she tells me. (The San Diego County Department of Animal Services estimates that currently there are over 300,000 dogs within San Diego city limits and nearly 700,000 in the county.) Pellissier accepts an argument Spengel, Sloane, and members of the Fiesta Island Dog Owners put forward, that the issue of dogs on Fiesta Island should be viewed in the context of the entire local park system instead of the island alone. A statement issued by Fiesta Island Dog Owners claims that the Park and Recreation Department maintains roughly 40,000 acres of public lands. "Approximately 416 acres (1%) are currently available as off-leash areas for dogs," claims the statement. "If you subtract [the acreage on] Fiesta Island, that will leave [very little] available as off-leash! Of the small neighborhood off-leash parks...most are severely overcrowded." So many people abandon the crowded parks and take their dogs to Fiesta Island.