Pacifica’s first dog park is making some of its neighbors miserable, and they want the city to move it. The Sanchez Dog Park, on city property between the Sanchez Art Center and homes on South Alicante Drive, has, according to some residents, been a source of noise and dust since its March 30 opening.
Brendan Bartholomew/Daily Journal
The Sanchez Dog Park in Pacifica has prompted complaints from neighbors who say the dogs are too noisy and disruptive.
Photography instructor Stephen Johnson, whose studio is next to the dog park, said in addition to noise from barking dogs disrupting his classes and creative process, he’s also had to contend with dog owners taking up parking spaces reserved for his clients and students.
However, dog owners Mark and Elaine McKeen said the park has greatly benefited their little dog, Wally.
"It’s made an enormous difference,” says Elaine, "We have a rescue dog, so socializing the dog is extremely important and having him off-leash makes it easier. He doesn’t have issues off-leash that he does have when he’s on-leash.”
To protect the endangered snowy plover bird species, Pacifica has been more strictly enforcing existing leash laws at its beaches since 2010. The result is that there are very few places in the area where dogs can legally frolic off-leash.
The opening of the dog park on Linda Mar Boulevard was the result of efforts by a group of residents calling themselves The Pacifica Organization of Canine Helpers, or POOCH, whose stated goal was to provide at least one fenced, off-leash dog park for the community. POOCH volunteers monitor and maintain the dog park, but a representative of the organization declined to comment on the controversy surrounding the park.
"POOCH is going to fight like heck to avoid having the park moved,” says Daniel Muller, a Walnut Creek attorney hired by the homeowners.
The smells, noise, and especially the dust from the park have been "a shockingly important nuisance,” Muller said.
The impact study which the city performed in accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act prior to building the park was not accurate and made assumptions which proved to be wrong, Muller said.
"Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong,” Muller said. "It was a bad idea to put a dog park behind people’s homes. Nobody in their right mind, no matter how much they love dogs, would want a dog park right behind people’s backyards.”
The cost of relocating the dog park would not be prohibitive, Muller said, and he would like to avoid a lawsuit.
"No suit has been filed, and we hope we won’t have to file. Nobody wants to litigate,” Muller said. "I’d like to have everybody get together and try to move this thing forward, rather than have a bunch of lawyers talking about whether there’s an actionable claim.”
Park booster Bernie Sifry, however, said Pacifica’s budget is running on very thin reserves, and the threat of being sued will probably cause the city to cave in to the homeowners’ demands.
Sifry, originally from New York, and a Pacifica resident since 2002, recently addressed the City Council and urged them not to close the park. He said the homeowners had been given ample time to voice their concerns prior to the park’s approval, and he described photographer Stephen Johnson as "a very obnoxious person” who is too quick to call the police to report excessive barking.
Johnson is aware that his position has made him unpopular in some circles, but he said barking dog noise has made it nearly impossible for him to ply his trade.
"This has probably been the single most negative impact on my art making in my 40-year career, and that’s not to mention the impact on my teaching and ability to conduct business on the phone,” he said. "I would have never moved into this space if I’d known there’d be a dog park next to it, nor would the other artists here, nor would the homeowners.”
The majority of dog park users are good about controlling their dogs to minimize barking, he said, but a few bad apples are ruining it for everybody.
"Eighty percent of the people are lovely and courteous, but there are the 10 or 20 percent who aren’t, and then you wind up dealing with some very angry and entitled people.”
Parks, Beaches, and Recreation Director Michael Perez said steps have been taken to address the complaints. The park’s operating hours have been reduced, the park is now closed on Tuesdays and signs have been installed informing users of the reduced hours. Signs warning users not to park in spaces reserved for photography students have also been installed, Perez said.
Volunteers are watering the park to suppress dust and the city is exploring the option of putting in an automatic sprinkler system for dust suppression, he added.
Though he rejects claims that the city did not spend enough time studying the situation before building the dog park, Perez does not minimize the concerns of the park’s neighbors.
"I understand the reality now is not what they expected,” Perez said. "We certainly won’t discount their feelings. We did our due diligence, but I wouldn’t argue with them about their experience.”
Councilwoman Mary Ann Nihart agrees with Perez that the city did not take shortcuts. The site’s selection was a very public, multi-year process and resident input was solicited at every step, she said.
"The City Council just doesn’t do things in isolation,” Nihart said.
Frontierland Park in the back of Linda Mar Valley has been suggested by some as a possible relocation site, but Nihart said that option is not ideal because the site is at the top of a big hill, and would therefore be difficult for seniors and pedestrians to access.
Dog park opponent Stephanie Poloni said the noise and dust make her feel like she’s living next door to a construction site. Her neighbors with children are especially concerned about letting their kids play in backyards caked with dust from the park’s substrate, she said.
Poloni does not, however, want to see the issue painted as a fight between homeowners and dog lovers.
"We’re all dog owners,” she said. "We love dogs. We think Pacifica should have a dog park. We just think it should be moved to a more compatible place.”
Realtors have agreed with her that the dog park’s placement could reduce the values of the affected homes, she said, but her biggest concern is not financial.
"My grandparents were the original owners of this home,” she said. "Now my husband and I are talking for the first time about what’s going to happen if we have to move. We can’t let this happen. This is more than an investment — this is our home.”