To Dog or Not to Dog

The leash-law controversy continues in Old West Austin

If nothing else, the lingering dispute over a proposed six-month pilot off-leash period for dogs in West Austin Park demonstrates that dog poop and the threat of dog bites can generate more tension in one neighborhood than a family custody battle. After a March 5 community meeting on the issue drew 150 residents and a cadre of City Hall celebrities, a volunteer committee of residents, supposedly divided evenly between supporters and opponents of the trial, formed to develop a tentative plan of operation. After 11 long, contentious sessions, the committee finally passed a draft program. Unfortunately, by that time the program's opponents had walked out in protest, claiming their side was never treated fairly. The committee consequently dissolved.

"It seems so silly for such a silly little issue," says Dale Detwiler, who supports the plan. He had expected the process to last just four or five weeks, but the two sides never agreed on the committee's essential purpose: pilot supporters believed the goal was to plan a trial off-leash period, but opponents insisted the pilot should never occur. Even the city's award-winning Dispute Resolution Officer Tracy Watson, called in after several meetings to smooth things out, couldn't overcome the "distrust and bad blood" plaguing the committee. "It's Austin politics in a microcosm," Watson said. The trial period was "a poor candidate for mediation" because it focused on people's personal beliefs and values, he noted. "When you find people who feel that strongly about a position, it's hard" to find a compromise.

Yet Detwiler says that in effect, pilot opponents wrote the committee's plan. "Everything we did was a response to a problem," he said. "We really gave in to these guys." One was Mike Quirk, whose front porch faces the park and who believed the committee was supposed to decide whether the pilot should ever happen. Quirk refers to a March 6 letter by Assistant City Manager Mike McDonald to the chair of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Assoc. steering committee, saying that the city would allow neighborhood residents "to decide whether to implement the six-month pilot noted in the Old West Austin Neighborhood Plan [emphasis added]."

McDonald told the Chronicle that the committee's purpose was "to decide if [the pilot] could be done, address issues, and decide if we put it in front of the community, what would it look like. ... It was never the intent to get one side to win." Although PARD Director Jesus Olivares and the Parks Board oppose the pilot, and McDonald himself is concerned about turds and teeth, "We still felt it was best for the community to decide." Despite the program's inclusion in the neighborhood plan, McDonald added, "It was never clear if the neighborhood knew about any type of pilot program." In the meantime, OWANA was expected to abide by the leash ordinance, but Quirk says dog owners have failed to do so.

Old habits are indeed hard to break. For at least 10 years (some neighbors say 20), the lower, grassy portion of West Austin Park -- a three-acre space that also includes a small pool, a new playscape, and a shabby tennis court -- has unofficially accommodated neighborhood dog owners. While the dogs play, the owners socialize; given the relatively turdless terrain on a recent visit, it appears most pet owners have been responsible. Some have even formed a "Canine Social Club" to promote park etiquette, which isn't always a pooch problem: Several pilot supporters complain that families occasionally throw holiday fetes at the park, leaving their trash behind.

While some neighbors may have pegged him, he says, as an "isolated idiot" and a "ringleader," Quirk believes allowing off-leash dogs disregards the safety of children, the elderly and handicapped, and even public health standards. He's collected signatures from 150 residents who also oppose the pilot, a few of whom have spoken out at City Council. He also notes that of 12 off-leash parks citywide, four are located relatively close to West Austin. "We all agree we like off-leash parks," says Quirk -- he just doesn't think that West Austin Park is a good location.

Quirk attributes current efforts to establish the pilot period to "irrational and dangerous" people who value animals above children and OWANA members who "snuck" the pilot item into the neighborhood plan "without telling the neighbor-hood, and then tried to get PARD to agree with it." (Though the American Veterinary Medical Association says half of the 4.5 million people bitten by dogs last year were children under 12 years of age, cat bites also result in pain and infection for both kids and adults. Ironically, a cat food dish is prominent on Quirk's front porch.) Quirk says a leashless dog once came up on the porch and lunged at his daughter.

Pilot supporters say the park operated relatively harmoniously until last year, when signs prohibiting off-leash dogs suddenly appeared -- along with a set of small bleachers and signs claiming exclusive use of the field for the West Austin Youth Association's Tee Ball games. Patrols by parks' police increased; one officer even donned night-vision goggles. Several off-leashers were ticketed, and in February a park regular was arrested. The resultant uproar culminated in the crowded March meeting and the committee for the pilot plan.

The plan includes a detailed code of conduct, specific restrictions on hours of operation, and other measures geared to soothe opponents. After city staff reviews the plan, which isn't binding, the neighborhood's roughly 2,500 residents will have an opportunity to vote on it in a referendum, McDonald said. If the plan passes, PARD will erect the fence (the preliminary cost estimate is $18,000) and signage within 30 days.

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West Austin Park, West Austin Neighborhood Association, Dale Detwiler, Tracey Watson, OWANA, Mike Quirk, Mike McDonald, leash law, dog park, Jesus Olivares, Canine Social Club

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