Sasha enjoys the lawn south of Alice Birney with her respectful owner.
University Heights residents are divided on the highest, best use for the joint-use park that is the playground for Alice Birney Elementary School. Neighborhood dog lovers have been letting as many as 30 of their beasts play off-leash and the school principal and students’ parents are just plain grossed out.
“School staff told us that before the school day begins, they have been going out to pick up waste that owners left behind,” says Humane Society Officer Steve MacKinnon. “We’ve received complaints from parents, too.”
For the last month and a half, Humane Society officers have been monitoring Birney and about a dozen other parks where the conflicting uses are a problem. Birney’s playing field is in the northwest corner of the San Diego Unified School District’s spread that includes the historic school district building along Park Boulevard and then Normal Street, just north of Washington. Humane Society enforcement officers have been to the 9,500-square-yard field 19 times since mid-October, a spokesman said.
“We see the whole range,” MacKinnon said. “We’ve come by and found no dogs and come by and find 30 dogs.”
Caroline, a Birney school parent and a dog lover, says you can smell dog urine and feces when you come inside the gated field.
“The city has put up signs and the people disregard them. The Birney children have made dog bag dispensers and they've been torn down. Parents have tried to inform the mis-users and they've been aggressively confronted by angry defensive dog owners,” she said. “The obvious feces and urine problems occur and the PE coach cleans it up every morning, but many dogs dig holes and some children have fallen in them during PE and twisted their ankles.”
Parents sought help from the Humane Society, and they got it.
“We’ve been doing education at all the targeted parks,” MacKinnon says. “For example, officers carry maps of where dog parks are and they give them to people whose dogs were off-leash.”
In July, the Humane Society took over providing the city’s animal services, prompting a huge burst of growth. The agency already had contracts with a half dozen cities, five Native American reservations and the unincorporated areas of the county. Still, to cover San Diego, the agency nearly doubled in size. The $20 million contract was reluctantly approved – it was triggered by the county closure of its Animal Control Services. At first, MacKinnon says, city officials wanted them to hold back on enforcement and focus on cooperation and education.
But the education period is over. Now, MacKinnon says, dog owners whose dog is off-leash will receive citations that start with a $100 fine that increases with each subsequent bust.
About 50 school parents and dog owners attended a meeting of the University Heights Parks and Recreation Council December 5 to voice their concerns and look for solutions, according to Chris Mills, chairman of the University Heights Community Association. The solutions ran the gamut from banning dogs in violation of the joint use agreement between the city and the school district, to banning children by making the playground a dog park.
“It won’t be turned into a dog park,” a city official said flatly.
Despite the Humane Society telling people they would begin to enforce, a week after the December 5 meeting, dog owners continue to run their dogs after dark, when the kids are gone.
Tuesday evening, one of them said she’d met the Humane Society enforcer who was taking names - of both the people and the dogs - and handing out maps of regional dog parks. Which is why we’ll call her Maggie. Many of the dog parks close at dusk and quite a few - Nate’s Point in Balboa Park, Dusty Rhodes in OB, the dog park near Mesa College and the dog area at Morley Field, for example - are just a packed dirt surface after the city stopped watering them. Others aren’t fenced, making it easy to lose a dog. The ‘temporary’ dog park at Ward Canyon, four miles from Birney, continues to use the same wood chunks that send splinters into dogs’ feet.
And while there are great dog parks and beaches on days off when there’s time to pack up and drive to the dog beach and stay a while, that’s not how work nights go for Maggie. She gets up before dawn and works long days and comes home late. Since she lives nearby and knows many of the dog park regulars, she continues to come to the park.
“It’s people who don’t pick up after their dogs that have caused the problems,” Maggie says. “I get that nobody wants to see their child coming in contact with dog poop.”
The dog owners offered solutions: fence off the huge grassy area on the other side of the historic and current school administration buildings and put a dog park there. Create a specific area for dogs to relieve themselves. Set hours to let dogs come before kids show up for school or after dark, after kids are gone. The best solution wasn’t apparent at the first meeting.
MacKinnon notes there are signs posted at several spots in each park, including the entrances, that make clear dogs must be leashed at all times. A new batch of signs with the Humane Society enforcement phone numbers just went up.
Most of the dog owners at Birney like Maggie live in the immediate vicinity and walk over, similar to what happens at other joint-use playgrounds. Some people think the answer is to get a new dog park closer to home, Mills said. But the process is onerous and takes a more than a couple of years.
Councilmember Chris Ward’s office is working on a solution, according to staffer A. J. Estrada. In the meantime, they’re supporting enforcement efforts. Some dog owners, on hearing this, shrug. After all, $100 to be able to take your dog out to play in walking distance from home is a pretty good deal.