Dog owners fight for Fiesta Island turf

Mission Bay Park Master Plan had left them out

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.

However, Bob Ottilie, chairman of the Mission Bay Park Committee, feels that the discussion of Fiesta Island's future has been skewed since KTU+A began trying so hard to accommodate dogs. The result, he feels, is that a variety of potential future users are not being heard. "The owners, who are well organized, did raise an important point that we overlooked in the beginning," says Ottilie. "Since then the City has gone out of its way to a fault to respond to them. At the last meeting [on February 6] Mike Singleton [of KTU+A] addressed every single item as a response to dog issues. Dogs must have been mentioned 100 times, but children, not once. I began to wonder whether the dogs who will be waterskiing are going to be off leash."

And Ottilie believes that dogs don't mix well with children. "Dogs on the loose will bound up to little children and scare them badly," he says. "They sometimes bite. I've been attacked by a dog and had to go to the hospital. Recently my kid almost had her head taken off too."

Dog owners counter by arguing that the larger the space in which dogs have to move freely, the less confrontational they are. The opportunity to run off leash, say veterinarians, even reduces canine aggressiveness in other contexts. And Fiesta Island Dog Owners maintains that the rate of reported dog "incidents" is lowest at Fiesta Island among the leash-free areas, such as those at Dusty Rhodes Park and Dog Beach. That's because of the island's much larger spaces, including its fenced area. "People actually walk and run their dogs at Fiesta Island," says Brian LaRoche, "rather than socializing among themselves in the center of the space while their dogs run around by themselves."

For dog owners, the single most troubling aspect of the latest Fiesta Island General Development Plan is a road that will wind through the current leash-free fenced area on the island's southwestern side. Now the main road, as it heads south on the west side of the island, turns at the entrance to the fenced area's parking lot and crosses the island, eventually taking drivers back to the mainland. In the new plan, however, the road, when it gets to the parking lot, will continue south along the island's western edge and then make a sharp turn in a northeasterly direction, taking drivers north of Hidden Anchorage before leading to the mainland. Dog owners see it as a double bisection of their leash-free fenced area. As it heads in a southerly direction, the road will cut off their access to the southwestern shore in order to exclude them from a planned beach for swimming. As it runs in the northeasterly direction, it will cut the new 66-acre leash-free area in two, leaving the halves separated by fences on each side of the road.

The purpose of the road is to service the swimming beach as well as new launch and storage facilities for canoes and dragon boats. Veterinarian Jean Spengel questions the need for the new amenities. "There are already eight beaches in Mission Bay Park," she says. "And people swim at them only a few months each year, whereas we're out there every day. And why can't they use the South Shores boat launch facilities right across the channel for the boats?"

Hoping to at least eliminate one leg of the road, Brian LaRoche e-mailed KTU+A's Mike Singleton on Sunday, February 11, suggesting that the westernmost portion of the road stop before it enters the leash-free area, still allowing the road to service the swimming beach and the waterskiing activities at the tip of Hidden Anchorage. "We would prefer a simple solution," LaRoche added, "but if it is not to be, [then we] are in it for the long haul."

Singleton replied the same day. "I am afraid that the continuous barrage of negativity from dog owners has made it very difficult for me to offer up any more compromises. I have made so many efforts at helping you all out, but not once have received any public recognition for any of these efforts. Your groups have continuously complained about losing...acreage, without recognizing that you are all starting from zero acres. You have no entitlements in the master plan.... Despite this you have all been unwilling to compromise....

"We [KTU+A] were hired to implement the approved master plan. If we vary from the plan too much, the city will have to spend a lot more money on preparing the general development plan and [environmental impact report] as well as implementing permits....

"So, I am afraid to say it, but we will be having to head back the other way. Since no compromise seems to be possible, and your groups will never be satisfied in giving up a single acre, we might as well trim the dog use area back more consistently with the master plan, or at least hold the line on the current use levels to avoid any real change in the master plan requirements. So [now] you are all on your own in making the arguments for your position. I just don't think you will get too far with it...."

Mission Bay Park Committee chairman Bob Ottilie feels confident that the Fiesta Island General Development Plan, as now written, will make it through the city council. But the committee's Mindy Pellissier wonders where the money to pay for it is ever going to come from. "And how," she asks, "will we pay to maintain and water all the new green turf the plan calls for?"

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