Draft of Seattle Off-Leash Dog Park Plan is…meh
In June, the Seattle Board of Parks Commissioners released a draft of Seattle’s off-leash dog park plan.
The goal of the People, Dogs and Parks Master Plan is to identify a long term plan for Seattle’s off-leash areas (OLAs) as well as for maintenance, acquisition, and expansion of OLA projects.
The impetus for the plan emerged in 2014 when the City of Seattle’s 2014 Adopted Budget included a City Council Statement of Legislative Intent (SLI 69- 1-B-1) regarding OLAs. The SLI requested that Seattle Parks and Recreation (SPR) work in conjunction with Citizens for Off-Leash Areas (COLA) and other stakeholders to develop a People Dogs, and Parks Master Plan.
The Board will take public comments on the draft at a public meeting on September 22, and it will take written comments until October 14. It’s goal is to finalize the plan by December.
As a prelude to the public hearing next month, here are my comments about the draft plan.
THE PROBLEM – SEATTLE HAS OUTGROWN ITS OLAs
Seattle is one of the fastest growing cities in the county. From 2000-2010, our population grew by 8% (608,660). Since then, our population has grown more than 10% (662,400 est.).
For an estimated 150,000 dogs, Seattle has 25 acres of off-leash land in 14 OLAs. Although its population has increase almost 18% since 2000, Seattle increased its total OLA acreage by 2.3 acres, or about 10%. Half of this land is found in a single inaccessible, underutilized OLA under I-5 (I-5 Colonnade). The other OLAs are extremely tiny like the .1 acre Kinnear Park OLA and the.4 acre Magnolia Manor OLA.
Here are some other statistics about Seattle’s OLAs from a recent COLA survey:
- The #1 reason non-OLA users in Seattle don’t use them is that they are not conveniently located.
- Although Seattle has 14 dog parks, 78% of the total acreage is in only 4 of them – Magnuson, Westcrest, Genesee, and Dr. Jose Rival.
- Residents only use four OLAs regularly – Magnuson, Westcrest, Golden Gardens, and Woodland.
- Only three OLAs (Plymouth Pillars, Regrade, Golden Gardens) have some lighting for late afternoon and evening use in the winter.
- Just one OLA (Magnuson) has water access.
- Only four OLAs have small dog areas (Golden Gardens, Magnuson, Westcrest, and Magnolia Manor).
Comparable cities have much more acreage allotted for OLAs compared to Seattle:
Portland – 66 acres
Vancouver, BC – 168 acres
San Francisco – 120 acres
Austin – 682 acres
Even tiny Bend, OR (Population 76,639) has more than twice the amount of acreage devoted to OLAs as Seattle.
The bottom line here is that the acreage allotted for OLAs in Seattle woefully inadequate, and many of the OLAs we do have lack amenities like water access, lighting, and small dog areas.
THE SURVEY SAYS…
Last year Seattle Parks and Recreation took an online survey of about 4000 dogs owners to get insight into the habits of Seattle dog owners. Here are some of the highlights:
- 71% have medium or large sized dogs
- 66% prefer to exercise their dogs off-leash
- 67% use off-leash areas weekly to monthly
- 39% illegally use local parks weekly to monthly
- 38% illegally use park trails
- 48% said having an off-leash area close to home is the most important factor determining whether they would use it
- 37 percent of respondents said having an open exercise area is the most important factor determining whether they would use an OLA
- At least 90% said they never use I-5 Colonnade (90%), Lower Kinnear Park (91%), Regrade Park (93%), and Plymouth Pillars (94%).
- 61% of non-OLA users said the top reason they rarely use OLAs is because they aren’t conveniently located
DRAFT MASTER PLAN IS…UNDERWHELMING
I appreciate Seattle Parks and Recreation’s commitment to develop a long term plan for acquiring new OLA space and maintaining our current OLAs. Trying to adopt a long term plan for anything is historically difficult in our city as we often get bogged down for years trying to gain consensus on any new proposal.
But as I noted above, the draft plan is disappointing. Here’s why:
• No new OLAs
The OLA draft says that Seattle Parks “will specifically include OLAs as an element for consideration in the planning process” when SPR embarks on the development or redevelopment process for new and existing parks.
This is not a commitment for new OLAs. It’s merely saying the OLAs will just be considered during the planning process for new/existing parks. That’s just slightly better than the current policy which doesn’t require consideration of OLAs, but it guarantees nothing.
Furthermore, Seattle government appears ambivalent about retaining some of its few remaining open spaces. Recently it considered selling 13 acres of open space from an old industrial site in South Seattle until the public pressured it to reverse its decision.
The draft plan does say that Seattle Parks will apply siting criteria to 14 parcels in the city. However, they only range in size from .1 to .83 acres, which is much too small for an OLA.
The time and money required for slogging through the process of establishing OLAs on these tiny parcels would be a waste.
Why not commit to opening one new adequately sized park instead of several little ones few people will use?
Finally, the draft highlights for 2 items already in place. It says the 2011 Park Development Plan states: “Other public properties besides park lands will be considered for future off-leash areas to avoid conversion.”
It also highlights a 1997 resolution that says “it is the City Council’s intent that additional non-park areas be established.”
While it’s fine to cite these recommendations, a future plan for Seattle’s OLAs needs much bolder, concrete ideas. A repetition of old ones will not work.
• No Unfenced OLAs
An unfenced OLA is an open space where off-leash dogs are allowed at off-peak times. For instance, New York City’s Central Park allows off-leash dogs before 9 AM and after 9 PM.
Seattle has dozens of play fields that are virtually unused for most of year. Why not allow off-leash dogs on them when they aren’t being used?
Wouldn’t this be an inexpensive, innovative way to give more space for off-leash dogs?
The draft plan says this works in NY because the city has 400 enforcement staff, but it offers no information regarding how many hours they devote to patrolling these areas or what other duties they have. I doubt they patrol these temporary OLAs before 9 AM or after 9 PM unless someone reports a problem.
Another reason given for not designating unfenced OLAs is dog owners won’t follow the rules because 26% said in the survey admit to “illegal off-leash activity.” I’ve never heard of a government not creating a new law/rule because some people won’t follow it. Are there any laws that everyone obeys? Did anyone consider that fewer people would engage in illegal off-leash activity if Seattle had unfenced OLAs?
The last reason in the draft for not creating unfenced off-leash area is that “a prominent animal behaviorist believes large and small dogs should never mix, which would be inevitable at an unfenced OLA.” If Seattle Parks is so concerned about this problem all of Seattle’s current OLAs would have separate small dog areas, but only 4 have them now.
In my opinion the reasons for not establishing any unfenced OLAs are pretty weak.
Why not do a pilot program in a limited number of places instead of categorically dismissing them?
• Miscellaneous Issues
The plan categorically dismisses providing new OLAs with water access or off-leash trails. Only one OLA (Magnuson) has water access, and Seattle has no off-lease trails. This is simply unacceptable in a city that has 50% more dogs than children.EA
WE CAN DO BETTER
Although Seattle is often in the top 10 of any list of the most dog friendly cities in the US, the number and size of available OLAs we have are not adequate.
The Seattle Parks Board should be commended for attempting to address this problem, but the Master Plan draft has no solid commitments to creating new OLAs. And it doesn’t contain any visionary, out-of-the-box solutions to the problem.
The only concrete proposals the plan offers is writing more tickets for people with off-leash dogs in areas where they should be leashed and restricting the number of dogs that dog walkers can bring into OLAs.
I don’t think either of these actions will do much to solve the problem.
As I said, Seattle Parks’ survey said 48% of Seattle OLA users said having an off-leash area close to home is the most important factor determining whether they would use it.
61% of non-OLA users said the top reason they rarely use OLAs is because they aren’t conveniently located.
And in a poll by COLA, the top reason Seattle dog owners gave for not going to OLAs is they aren’t large enough.
But from what I can tell, the Draft Master Plan contains no substantive proposals to make OLAs either larger or more conveniently located.
Fortunately, the Parks Board still has time to make changes to the plan. That’s why it’s important for dog owners to give comments about the draft at a public meeting on September 22 at the Miller Community Center at 6:30pm.
If you can’t make it, you can submit written comments to Rachel.Acosta@seattle.gov by October 14.
The Board will finalize the plan in December and submit it to the Seattle City Council in 2017, so this is probably going to be the last opportunity to comment on it.