City Staff Expected to Rule on Canine Freedom

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The Berkeley City Council is expected to decide tomorrow night whether Berkeley's dogs can continue to run wild and free in Cesar Chavez Park.

After a one-year trial period, city staff has issued a report recommending that dog owners be allowed to unleash their dogs in a 17-acre area of the park.

The off-leash area has not shown any significant problems and should be continued indefinitely and managed by a partnership between the city and a community group, the report states.

"The pilot program has shown itself to be very successful," said John Ewing, a member of Friends of Cesar Chavez Park. "It's obvious that the city has needed (the off-leash area) for a long time."

Ewing said that before the creation of the off-leash area, the city's approximately 20,000 dogs had only a small park of less than one acre to exercise. He said the community dog-owners group has kept the area functional.

"The most important thing for an off-leash area is that there be adequate signs, bag dispensers, and trash receptors," he said. "What a local dog group can do is to keep the bag dispensers stocked and do peer policing."

Friends of Cesar Chavez Park organizes regular park cleanups and informs park visitors of the boundaries of the off-leash area, said Ewing, who is also chair of the San Francisco Dog Owners Group. He said, however, that more signs are needed in the park.

"Signs are really important," he said. "Oftentimes nobody really know what the rules are. (Signs) let other people who are not dog owners know that dogs may be present."

Ewing pointed out that some community members have objected to the off-leash area, such as the critic who said that to have dogs running around a Cesar Chavez memorial would be "sacrilegious."

"There are always going to be disputes about how public land should be used," Ewing said. "There needs to be some room for compromise. Cesar Chavez himself owned dogs and loved them dearly. Not only did he do a lot for farm laborers in California, but he also was a lover of animals."

Berkeley resident Gail Mandela said she supports the continuation of the off-leash area but is concerned that it interferes with the enjoyment of residents who do not own dogs.

"There had been some agreement that those who bring dogs then would learn about the boundaries of the off-leash area," she said. "It's my understanding that dogs keep going in the other area."

Mandela said she uses the park to enjoy the sunset and mark the spring and fall equinox and the summer solstice.

Some community members come to the park for an environment that is "peaceful and quiet" and are disappointed to find dogs roaming around, she said.

"(Dogs) run around there and sometimes they do their business," Mandela said. "The City Council came up with an agreement between the two groups that there would be a boundary between them, and that has not been upheld."

Mandela said the city should use more signs and shrink the off-leash area to keep the dogs in line.

Mayor Shirley Dean said she supports the off-leash area and is confident that a compromise can be reached.

"I do believe both uses can peacefully coexist," she said. "I want to see them work it out. There's sufficient room."

Dean said Friends of Cesar Chavez Park has done an impressive job in keeping dogs within the boundaries.

"I've been there on many occasions with my own dog and I think it works very well," she said.


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