Del Mar City Council supports off-leash hours at Shores park

By Claire Harlin

The conflict regarding use of Del Mar Shores Park has dragged on close to a year, and the Del Mar City Council hopes to finally resolve — at least until a more permanent city master plan is put in place — the issue on Jan. 9 with the implementation of off-leash hours to promote shared use between sports teams, dog owners and other park-goers.

After directing city staff on Oct. 17 to explore a plan put forth and funded by the Friends of Del Mar Parks, which would involve the erection of a fence around the baseball diamond, officials shifted their direction on Dec. 5. The majority of the council now supports moving forward with a shared-use approach that designates off-leash hours for dog owners, and the idea of putting up a fence through the middle of the park is facing hesitance.

At the head of the conflict are Little Leaguers, who want to use the park almost daily with no interruption from dogs, and local dog owners, who have for years let their dogs run free in the park without a leash. Not excluded are the elderly and those with children or small dogs, who want to keep distance from larger dogs.

Del Mar Mayor Don Mosier said if there is not a willingness by all parties to compromise, then “the council will have to impose a plan that will not be subject to negotiation.”

City staff, with the help of Deputy Mayor Carl Hilliard and Councilman Mark Filanc to expedite the process and address contention, will return to the council with a plan for a six-month trial period that will involve segregated times of use and a removable fence that can be put in place only during the month of February, when daylight hours are still sparse and baseball season picks up. This differs from the more expensive Little League-supported plan that Friends of Del Mar Parks previously suggested and offered to pay for, which involves the “extended use” of a fence. They called this the “compromised plan.”

“I am sorry that the compromised solution is not the one favored by the council, but we want to do the less expensive experiment first,” said Mosier. “I am sorry, but Little League is only a minor user of the park. They have some rights, but it’s a community park and I don’t think they can dictate the hours.”

Deputy Mayor Hilliard reminded the council that the only entity which does have priority over the park is the Winston School, because it prepaid more than $3 million to help purchase the Del Mar Shores property, bound by Camino Del Mar, Stratford Court and Ninth Street.

In a presentation to the council, Assistant City Manager Mark Delin showed that putting a fence through the park would interfere with the space used by the Winston School as a soccer field, because the field overlaps both the baseball diamond and the suggested off-least area as proposed by the Friends of Del Mar Parks.

Delin also reported that representatives of the Little League have said that it will be very difficult to work with a plan that utilizes off-leash hours, because their practices are almost daily and start at 3:30 p.m.

A plan presented by community member Mark Tendal, which has a petition of 428 Del Mar residents to support it, suggested the implementation of both summer and winter hours. Summer hours would allow sports from 3 to 5:30 p.m. and off-leash users thereafter, and winter hours would allow sports from 3 to 4:30 p.m., with off-leash use from 4:30 p.m. until dusk. This plan also involves the use of a temporary fence in February.

Tendal said sharing the park, as opposed to putting up a fence, will preserve the quaintness of the community and the open space the ocean-view park offers.

“Sharing works at hundreds of parks,” Tendal said. “It’s already been done. Other larger cities have already done the risk analysis and moved forward with shared plans.”

Deputy Mayor Carl said he visited Orpheus Dog Park in Encinitas, which specifies certain times when the park is available for off-lease use.

“It’s working up there,” he said.

The Encinitas park allows off-leash use on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays from 6 to 9 a.m. and from 3 to 8 p.m.

Hilliard said he is “not a big believer in fences.” Furthermore, he said, Del Mar Shores park was not intended to be a dog park.

“This was intended to be a community park and everyone in the community should be able to use it,” he said.

Community member Penny Abell said she believes that the shared-use plan that dictates off-leash times and days “makes the most sense.”

Councilman Terry Sinnott said he thinks the dog area needs to be separated by a fence.

“I hate fences but I think we need to do it until we master plan the shores property,” Sinnott said. “I walked by Balboa Park and they had a fenced dog area there … Because of the number of people that use it they have to fence it off.”

Larry Brooks, former president of the Del Mar Historical Society, shared a historical viewpoint on the issue. He said photos of Del Mar in its early years reveal that there was not a need for fences. Fences could not be found binding homes, businesses, nor the train station, he said. Historically significant walls like those in China and Berlin, as well as those dividing Israel and Palestine and Mexico and the United States have also proven to be ineffective, he argued.

“Fences are the antithesis of community,” Brooks said. “Is this really what we want to do with our park?”