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March 28-April 4, 2007

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs


In last week's coverage of Monterey County's General Plan battle (Nūz; March 21), Nūz noted how feisty land use matters can become as those plans age and time erodes the underpinnings on which they were based.

Well, here we go again: a dispute over dogs, leashes and Lighthouse Field that began with the city of Santa Cruz's 1984 General Plan has, over the last few weeks, now grown to include not only the city but its visitors, two battling community groups, two state courts and the California's State Parks Department.

It's no surprise that any activity on Lighthouse Field--part of a larger patch of land officially known as Lighthouse Field State Beach--would become a center of controversy.

Now a flat coastal expanse of tall waving grasses and toppled tree trunks bespangled by dappled sunlight, the field was an object of potential wonder in the 1960s. That's when a developer with a Frank Lloyd Wright protégé as architect, fascinated with its location just feet from West Cliff Drive, proposed an ultramodern, world-class 'Court of the Seven Seas' convention center. The field became an object of disappointment, at least to some, when investors never materialized to build it. It became a subject of controversy when a far plainer, more pallid and pecuniarily oriented development emerged. Keeping that at bay launched many a local political career.

Eventually, public agencies purchased Lighthouse Field, and it became public property, both in title and--perhaps more importantly--in collective emotional investment. Not only has the local citizenry owned the field for several decades, it has also functioned as its guardian.

That's how the city of Santa Cruz, agreeing with the State Park system to operate Lighthouse Field State Beach in 1977, became the agency that set the park's rules of operation. Yes, the state might technically own the land; the county might contribute a fourth or so of maintenance funds, but the city--and therefore by implication its residents--made the rules.

And the rule it made concerning dogs, in the 1984 General Plan for Lighthouse Field State Beach, was very simple: they're welcome. But--just as in the other 22 state parks that allow dogs--they were to remain leashed.

This rule did not sit well with some dog owners who had already lived through two previous sets of rules: a 1964 ordinance requiring leashes on all dogs in public places and a later 1976 rule banning dogs from city-run beaches altogether. Unhappy owners began to pressure for loosening.

By 1993, they had succeeded in getting that change. As Lisa K. Foster wrote in a report for the Research Bureau of the California State Library, DOGS ON THE BEACH: A REVIEW OF REGULATIONS AND ISSUES AFFECTING DOG BEACHES IN CALIFORNIA "in 1993, the City Council changed the city leash law to allow off-leash areas. With the consent of the state and county, the City Parks and Recreation Superintendent designated Santa Cruz's three beaches--Lighthouse Field, Its Beach, and Mitchell's Cove--as off-leash areas during morning and late afternoon, from sunrise to 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to sunset."

And that appeared to be that.

Until, that is, the year 2001, when the city of Santa Cruz decided to perform an UPDATE of the Lighthouse Field State Beach General Plan. Updating meant public hearings, and public hearings meant a release of long-simmering canine-related resentments.

The city received some complaints directly. Of many such communications, city records paraphrase just one, resident Ben Korte's email of May 31, 2002, as "complaining that the shore birds, pheasant, hawk, migrant ducks, and snowy white egret were gone from Its Beach because they could not 'co-exist with the numerous dogs.'"

Others came through online petitions. "I have been chased and bitten by off-leash dogs while minding my own business," a RESCUE SANTA CRUZ BEACHES petition signatory wrote. "I also don't appreciate their crotch sniffing, barking, and abandonned [sic] excrement," While that petition attracted only 16 of its desired 2,000 signatories, feelings ran high. Wrote another: "I've been approached and threatened by snarling, barking dogs while I was attempting to enjoy the ocean and sand on It's Beach, adjacent to Lighthouse Field. I no longer walk or play on that beach."

City Parks and Recreation staff, too, found leashless conditions less than satisfying. While the department found "only one incident involved aggressive dog behavior toward the Ranger" between March 2002 until February 2003, it also found around 600 violations of off-leash lawwithin that year. And it reported to the City Council, for the council's May 22, 2003, meeting, that the aggression incident, along with "two other dog-related incidents at other parklands, made it necessary to give the Rangers training related to dogs and safety."

The cost of this extra training hit at a time when, the report continued,"the City's ability to perform patrols at Lighthouse Field State Beach has diminished in recent months due to budgetary cutbacks resulting in staff shortages."

Canine advocates responded in March of 2002 by forming FRIENDS OF LIGHTHOUSE FIELD (FOLF), a "dog community" intended to "provide a unified voice" and to carry forth the task of keeping the field free, as had those who saved the field "from planned destruction ... almost thirty years ago," FOLF bought the city a pets' water fountain. It organized Paws in the Park events. And it began selling goods through online outlet Café Press: an "I Like Dogs and I Vote" ringed-collar T-shirt "sure to impress even the most discerning T-shirt connoisseur with an eye for retro-coolness; an "I Vote Like a Dog" canine T-shirt, meant for four-legged friends to "Do it up in doggie style!"

Perhaps blind to the magic of retro-coolness, opponents of free-running dogs dug in deeper. In May 2003, under the collective name LIGHTHOUSE FIELD BEACH RESCUE, they filed suit in state court demanding that any formal loosening of the 1984 must-leash rules in the old Lighthouse Field State Beach General Plan undergo a full Environmental Impact Review (EIR). In March 2004 the local court rejected the complaint.

Beach Rescue appealed to California's Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Jose. The Sixth ruled in August of 2005. No, a full EIR wasn't necessary, said the court, since many of the issues Beach Rescue had raised were social rather than environmental. On the environmental issues, however, the city had to do more than simply issue a negative declaration (a statement of no significant detrimental environmental effects); it had to at least somewhat prove it. Environmental law reports spread word of the decision nationwide.

Leash proponents were ecstatic. The August 2005 edition of California Coastwatcher (slogan: "We Love The Coast!") reported that "a local group of wildlife activists" had defeated the city's "illegal decision to allow Lighthouse Field Park to be destroyed by unleashed domestic dogs" generating 'copious amounts of dog feces.'

Free-runners, contrarily, were apoplectic. Meeting on Nov. 30, 2005, to "turn outrage into productive action," FRIENDS OF LIGHTHOUSE FIELD instructed its members, "We're not here to negotiate substandard alternatives." One recommendation: Request that the city "do a full EIR, to silence all questions."

Meanwhile, dog devotees began developing a second approach: blame humans. Perhaps the softest argument from this school is dog activist and Santa Cruz blogger nakedjen, who posts photos of her companions, one of which "stepped on a broken bottle and nearly sliced his front left foot off." She notes that she's "spent over $5,000 on emergency vet bills and visits." Why? "Accidents that have happened at Lighthouse Field." Her goal? "A place that doesn't have broken bottles or rotting Kentucky Fried Chicken or other trash."

Things seem to be moving in the opposite direction, however. On Oct. 26 of 2005, some two months after the court of appeals ruling, the state Department of Parks and Recreation wrote to the city of Santa Cruz and gave it two years' warning: If you're going to continue to operate a state park, you need to follow state rules. And that means keeping dogs on leash. The city has until Nov. 15, 2007, to conform its ordinances to those rules.

Despite Friends of Lighthouse Field's resistance--evidenced in its slogan Stop the state--keep our parks local!--it now appears likely that not only will state rules override local ordinances, but that the state itself may end up taking over operations of the park.

Faced with both state pressure to end the off-leash experiment and to upgrade trails that run through the field so that physically disabled people can use them too, city officials have begun pleading pennilessness. And in the last few weeks, they've begun speaking openly about simply turning over park operations to the state.

That, however, may not constitute the final word either. State sen. Jackie Speier has introduced a bill--S.B. 712--which if adopted will fund a feasibility study concerning off-leash rules, making initial identifications of places in the state parks system where dogs might be allowed to run free, and under what hours and conditions.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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