When John Davey and Christine David attended a Nov. 20 Atherton City Council meeting they expected council members to simply weigh the pros and cons of their proposed off-leash dog area in the town's only park, but say they were shocked by the council's split vote to remove the option from the town's master plan.
Davey and David felt so strongly about what they say was the council's disregard for what they assert is a priority for Atherton residents that they submitted letters of resignation from their posts on the town's Park & Recreation Committee late last month. The committee had recommended that the council consider a proposal to build an off-leash dog park — funded by donations — southeast of Holbrook-Palmer Park's North Lawn. The concept to create an off-leash area was part of the town's 2015 master plan for the future development of the park.
"Why even have a Park & Recreation Committee if the town council is not going to take seriously our recommendations?" asked Davey, who has served on the committee on and off for three decades, including a stint as chair, before resigning on Nov. 26. His term was set to end in June 2022. "Our (the committee's) objective is to represent the needs of Atherton residents as it relates to the park, and that's what we thought we were doing in good faith."
The two said they were particularly surprised that the council declined not only to consider the proposal, but also to remove it from the park's master plan, a move they say was "unnecessary." David said the master plan was based on decades of experience in the park, plus resident feedback, gathered at taxpayer expense, and that the town should honor it.
Mayor Bill Widmer said at the meeting that the town has "more important fish to fry." He and other council members cited the need to focus on the town's $31.6 million civic center construction project, which is scheduled for completion in 2021.
Council member Elizabeth Lewis noted that the town would need to survey residents to determine whether a dog park is a priority for residents. A 2015 survey for the master plan determined that residents didn't particularly want to add amenities to the park, but an off-leash dog area was the only major request, with 24% supporting off-leash dog use anywhere in the park and another 44% supporting it in a designated area, for a total of 68% of respondents.
"I'm really surprised this (dog park proposal) is coming to us at this particular time," Lewis said at the meeting. "I thought we indicated it was not a priority. Just because it's part of the master plan doesn't mean we're going to build something that would be nice to have."
Three council members — Lewis, Widmer and Cary Wiest — voted to remove the dog park from the master plan; Mike Lempres opposed the action. Vice Mayor Rick DeGolia, the council's Park & Recreation Committee liaison, abstained. After the meeting, DeGolia told The Almanac that he didn't feel strongly enough about the motion to oppose it, but he would have been happy with keeping the dog park option in the plan.
"While council listens to recommendations, we don't always take recommendations of resident-led committee members," Lewis told The Almanac. "There's no disrespect at all for the committee members. The council has to look at the bigger picture and not just special interests at this point. That's why we decided 'let's just take it off the table.'"
Lewis noted that even if residents raised private funds to construct a dog park, it would take up staff time to survey residents on their desire for the space, and there would be ongoing maintenance costs for such a park. Lewis and Wiest both expressed concerns that a dog park could be a liability for the town if dogs attack others.
Lempres, the sole council supporter of keeping the option in the master plan, said a dog park would be a "very good use of public space" and would help build community in the town. He said he would support a dog park if it was privately funded.
Council members including DeGolia and Widmer have asked Davey and David to reconsider their resignations. Davey said he will withdraw his resignation if council members reverse their decision.
David said she feels that it would be unethical to stay on the committee if she spoke out against the council, since the council appoints committee members. She said she's also aware that the council could have chosen to remove them from the committee.
David joined the committee in 2017, and her term was set to end in June 2021.
The Park & Recreation Committee began studying the feasibility of an off-leash dog area in the park in March. The park currently has indoor and outdoor facilities that include a baseball field, tennis courts, a playground, gardens and walking paths. Under the current rules, dogs must remain on leash in the park.
David drafted a proposal for a 21,000-square-foot dog park near the tennis courts, and estimated that it would cost between $65,000 and $100,000. But the recommended location is smaller than David's proposed location.
Davey and David are now hatching plans to keep their proposal alive. Through email, NextDoor and other channels, the two will reach out to residents and people who live in neighboring areas who use the park to encourage them to contact council members to ask them to add the dog park back to the master plan.
The two say they would consider creating a November 2020 ballot initiative or advisory vote that would measure support for an off-leash dog area in the park.
"People with dogs want to see this happen," Davey said.
DeGolia said that the idea of a dog park in town has been brought up to the council a number of times, but each time the council determined that the costs were too great, the location was not appropriate, or the level of residents' support was insufficient.
"Three members of the council felt strongly that they didn't want to go through another serious review of this issue and that they could best accomplish that by removing it from the master plan," he said. "My understanding is that they weren't stating opposition to the concept. They were stating that it is a low priority. ... Setting policy for and managing a municipality takes lots of compromise and respect for other people's opinions and perspectives. I believe that if there is a well-developed and fully funded proposal put together for an off-leash dog area, and if there [is broad community support for it, then the council would support it."
Alex Keh, Julianna Robertson and Bob Roeser remain on the Park & Recreation Committee, according to the town's website. Last week, the town put out a call for applications to fill vacancies on town committees, including Park & Recreation, according to its website. Applications are due Jan. 17 at 5 p.m.
Applicants must be Atherton residents and appointments will be for four-year terms. For an application go here or visit the town's offices at 150 Watkins Ave. in Atherton.