Commission okays non-resident dog use of Santa Monica’s Airport Park; City Council still must approve

BY VINCE ECHAVARIA

After Mar Vista barked loud enough, Santa Monica has heard.

An effort by residents of the Mar Vista community of Los Angeles to see that they can bring their dogs to an off-leash area at a neighborhood park within Santa Monica city limits has been answered by the board that oversees Santa Monica parks.

The City of Santa Monica Recreation and Parks Commission voted Thursday, July 19th, to support the establishment of a pilot program that would open the off-leash dog area at Airport Park to non-Santa Monica residents for a period of six months.

The commission’s proposal must still be approved by the Santa Monica City Council.

Community and Cultural Services Department staff said they will use the commission’s input in developing a recommendation to bring before the City Council in September.

The 0.88-acre off-leash dog area opened at the 8.3-acre Airport Park at the northwest corner of Bundy Drive and Airport Avenue in late April and is one of four off-leash areas in Santa Monica.

Existing Santa Monica rules governing off-leash dog areas in the city require that dogs have a Santa Monica dog license.

Under the proposed pilot program, no fees or permits would be required for non-Santa Monica residents to use the off-leash area. The Recreation and Parks Commission would revisit the program after six months to review usage over the period and determine if a more permanent program can be established.

“It’s a good step forward,” Santa Monica Community and Cultural Services Department director Barbara Stinchfield said of the parks commission proposal.

Referring to the push by Mar Vista residents to gain access to the off-leash area, Stinchfield said, “It’s unfortunate the whole thing happened.” Santa Monica has historically had a good-neighbor policy in all of its parks, she added.

While the reality of an open off-leash dog area may still be a couple of months away, some Mar Vista residents were quick to offer their praise for Santa Monica opening the area to all dogs.

“I’m happy we can use the dog park now,” Mar Vista Community Council vice chair Tom Ponton said of the parks commission’s proposal. “This is a big win for public activism.”

In the three months since Airport Park opened, Mar Vista residents have expressed frustration at the rules that prohibit them from taking their dogs into the off-leash area of the park closest to their homes.

They said that, while many Mar Vista community members can walk to the park, Santa Monicans must drive to get to the park, creating more traffic in the Los Angeles neighborhoods.

Other arguments were that the City of Los Angeles does not restrict Santa Monicans from using its facilities and many Los Angeles residents are the ones who spend money at Santa Monica businesses.

Santa Monica city officials said that the rules restricting the areas to Santa Monica-licensed dogs were enacted to balance the limited amount of off-leash space available in the city with the popularity of off-leash areas.

After the Mar Vista Community Council supported a resolution in May requesting the Santa Monica City Council to reconsider its “ban” on non-resident dogs, Santa Monica staff began to monitor usage of the off-leash area.

Staff said they have regularly monitored the usage and found that the dog park has never reached its capacity of 45 dogs, peaking at 22 dogs at any one time. Staff also mailed a survey to licensed dog owners regarding usage in which it was learned that the most popular times are weekend afternoons and evenings.

Members of both communities also expressed support for opening the dog park to non-Santa Monica residents at a meeting of the Santa Monica Recreation and Parks Commission last month.

Responding to the usage not being at capacity and the support for opening up the dog area, Santa Monica staff proposed suggestions to allow non-residents to access the off-leash site.

One recommendation was to require non-residents to purchase a user permit on a quarterly or annual basis. Staff also suggested that Santa Monica work with the City of Los Angeles to help develop more off-leash areas in Los Angeles.

Mar Vista resident Richard Resnick told the parks commission that he would prefer not even having to obtain a permit and that he opposes any type of resident restrictions.

“The park is very underutilized,” Resnick noted. “It’s located in such a place that it’s very hard for any Santa Monica residents to even use it.”

Another Mar Vista resident, Mark Fellman, said that having to put up a fight to access the dog area has made him not want to use the park anymore.

“The whole process has really tainted Santa Monica,” Fellman said.

When addressing the staff recommendations prior to their vote July 19th, Recreation and Parks Commission members were in favor of opening up the site but questioned what the most effective solution would be.

Commissioner Ted Winterer acknowledged that the site is currently underutilized and he supported a pilot program with a user fee for non-residents.

Commissioner Phil Brock said the city wants non-residents to use the park but Los Angeles officials should look at ways to provide more dog sites in their city.

Other commission members, including Lori Nafshun, noted that since Los Angeles is not restrictive with its facilities, Santa Monica should “extend the same courtesy.”

“If it is not being used [to capacity] now, why not let Mar Vista use it,” commissioner Kristina Deutsch suggested.

But in the end, the commission felt the most reasonable solution is to open up the park to all dogs for a six-month period without permits or fees and see how the program works.

Until the proposal can be approved by the Santa Monica City Council, Community and Cultural Services Department officials said the current resident restrictions at the Airport Park dog area are in effect but will most likely not be enforced.

Ponton, who was active in the effort to open the dog site to Mar Vistans, expressed confidence that his fellow community members will enjoy the new opportunity with their pets. Even with the addition of Mar Vista dogs, the park should rarely reach capacity, he noted.

The Mar Vista Community Council member commended his fellow residents for convincing the parks commission to let them into the dog site.

“We shook them up and they responded,” Ponton said.

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