There is a doozy of a donnybrook over usage of the southwest corner of Fiesta Island. It’s a real bitch. Or a real beach. Well, actually, those two words capsulize the battle: dog owners who want to exercise their pets leash-free are in a rasslin’ match with paddlers who want to launch their boats from a small portion of the beach.
In 1972, the City reached a contentious consensus to ban people with pooches from beaches. There was a compromise: the canines and their owners could use Dog Beach in Ocean Beach and Fiesta Island. Later, the dog owners lost a chunk of their leash-free land on Fiesta Island. Now, they are happy with 165 unfenced leash-free acres and roughly 95 fenced acres. But the City wants to take about 10 percent of the fenced area for a public beach, launch ramp, parking lot, and road to accommodate San Diego users of nonmotorized boats such as outriggers, Chinese dragon boats, canoes, and kayaks.
In 2002, when SeaWorld got permission to expand into public parkland, the California Coastal Commission said that the Mission Bay Park Master Plan should mandate park improvement at Fiesta Island and South Shores, just across the bay. The paddlers had been trying to get a launch location for 30 years. The City asked them if they could find one on Fiesta Island. They suggested that small stretch of the dog-running area.
The commission says improvements should be for aquatic purposes. The dog lovers say that some of their pets are water dogs who swim in the bay. And the dog lovers have an organization, Fiesta Island Dog Owners (FIDO), and a website. “We have 3,500 members and over 6,000 signed letters to the mayor,” says Dr. Jean Spengel, a veterinarian who founded FIDO. The group claims the paddlers are the obstinate ones: “If this continues, we will go to the city council. There will be 500 dog owners yelling and screaming,” she warns.
But Les Hopper, spokesman for several boat clubs, says there are probably more than a thousand people who use Mission Bay for a variety of paddling activities. Sneeringly, he says that “At peak usage, there are only about a hundred dogs at the Fiesta Island site — an acre per dog.” And “the majority [of owners] do not clean up their dog poop.”
But Spengel rejoins that if every recreational area were judged on dogs or people per acre, how could one justify a golf course? Moreover, the dog-exercising area “is used 365 days a year, from 5:00 a.m. to dark.” She admits that 10 percent of dog walkers may not clean up poop, “but FIDO is now doing regular cleanups once a quarter. We had 130 people out there one day.”
“We are good citizens,” says Hopper. Each year, the paddling clubs sponsor programs for people in wheelchairs and with spina bifida and other disabilities, says Judith Moore. The paddlers plan to launch their own group, Fiesta Island for All, and set up a website, says Debbie Miller, who, like Moore, is active on behalf of the paddlers.
A year and a half ago, the plan for paddler accommodations got approval from the Mission Bay Park Committee. “The vote was 8–5 — hardly a ringing endorsement,” snorts Carolyn Chase, environmental activist who has taken up the cudgels for the dog lovers. “More than 300 people attended with metaphorical pitchforks.”
“It got very unruly,” agrees Mike Singleton, principal at KTU+A planning and landscape architecture firm, which is honchoing the project. Several months later, the plan got approval from the Design Review Committee of the City Park and Recreation Department board.
The dog lovers say the paddlers belong across the bay at South Shores. But there are environmental problems there, says Singleton. “You can’t do any grading” because of toxicity of the landfill, he says.
Steve Levon is a former boardmember of the Mission Bay Boat and Ski Club, which for two decades has claimed a spot at South Shores on the master plan. “During World War II, the Navy was burying barrels of paint in the general area,” he says. If the toxicity problem were overcome, the boat and ski club would have first crack at South Shores, well ahead of the paddlers. The boat and ski club has “a lot of members, and the club would be a revenue producer with a bar and restaurant.” The paddlers would have no such advantages. Levon says there is a small area at South Shores that might accommodate the paddlers, but there would be no security for the boats, which are expensive.
“There are miles of underutilized beaches where the paddlers could use their boats,” says Chase. FIDO has scouted several Mission Bay areas that supposedly have what the paddlers need. In addition to South Shores, they are Mariner’s Basin and the north and south coves of Vacation Isle.
But Hopper says that they don’t fit his groups’ needs. “The canoes and dragon boats need calm, flat water. The outriggers are looking to get out into the ocean,” he says. The southwest corner of Fiesta Island is ideal for those specifications. Also, the paddlers need safety. They want room to store the boats, which cost $5000 to $12,000. And they don’t want to be too far from the water, because the boats weigh up to 1200 pounds.
“We haven’t specifically evaluated all those other sites,” says Paul Jacob, associate civil engineer in the City Park and Recreation Department, who is the project manager for the southwest Fiesta Island plan that has degenerated into a scrum. The paddlers’ usage of other sites would be incompatible with the Mission Bay Park Master Plan, the conditions of the SeaWorld permit, and the coastal act, says Singleton.
There is a huge question: money. The battleground project in the southwest corner of the island will cost $20 million to $30 million, says Singleton. “This is what we have been saying,” says Spengel. “Why should a city that is broke put in roads and parking lots that will be accessed by a couple of hundred people? Why not save the $20 million? If I were in a neighborhood in which they were closing rec centers, I would get mad to learn that the City is spending the money on Fiesta Island.”
Singleton and Jacob are both aware of money constraints. “Times are tough now,” says Singleton, but there might be sludge mitigation funds, Mission Bay lease revenue, and various state tourism-oriented grants available someday. In any case, the earliest this project could get under way would be four years, Singleton and Jacob agree.
Meanwhile, one monetary woe has beset Singleton’s firm. There have been so many plan changes that his firm is $150,000 in the hole on the project. Recently, the canine lovers convinced city council to see if the proposed road could be rerouted so that it doesn’t cut so much into the dog-walking area. “They [dog lovers] have held up the project for years; there have been 13 alternatives, and now there will be 14,” groans Singleton. “I am distressed at how much power dog owners have.”
The dog owners have bite. They claim that Jacob has a conflict of interest: he is a paddler. Says Jacob, “I had used Mission Bay for years even before I was a paddler.” When he took on the job as project manager, “I knew I would be vulnerable to criticism, so I have had my consultant Mike Singleton conduct all of the contacts. I have had no direct contact with the parties, to remain impartial.”
Of course, having direct contact with these combatants would be like getting in the ring between the bloodthirsty matador and the truculent bull. Better to let the consultant be in the middle.