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Off-leash policy moves forward, paving way for new dog parks

Monday, May 3, 2010 by Laurel Chesky

A draft policy to guide the establishment and use of off-leash dog areas in Austin could be ready by early next month. The proposed policy, being drafted by the city’s Off Leash Area Advisory Committee (OLAAC), will establish criteria for choosing off-leash sites, guide their design, and suggest user etiquette.

 

At the Parks and Recreation Board meeting on Tuesday evening, Bern Abplanalp, president of OLAAC, reported that the committee plans to vote on the draft policy in two weeks. Once the committee is finished with it, the policy will go before the parks board for approval.

 

“We’re really glad to hear about the policy,” said Parks Board Chair Linda Guerrero. “We’re all waiting on it before we talk about opening new (off-leash) parks or closing parks.”

 

OLAAC was formed in October, partly in response to public outcry—both for and against—the closing of the Bull Creek District Park off-leash area. The committee advises the Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) on issues related to Austin’s heavily used off-leash areas. The city currently allows dogs to play off leash in portions of 11 public parks, some of which suffer from erosion, plant degradation, and poor water quality due to overuse.

 

In seven months, the volunteer committee has made impressive progress in assessing public opinion, shaping policy, and moving toward expanding the city’s off-leash resources.

 

The committee has also helped shoulder the burden of a short-staffed city department. The committee has provided “concentrated effort and time that staff does not have in our day,” said Ricardo Soliz, PARD division manager.

 

OLAAC’s top priority is the establishment of new off-leash areas, particularly in urban neighborhoods. Abplanalp reiterated that goal on Tuesday. The city’s current inventory of off-leash areas “is simply not sufficient,” he told the board. “There just aren’t enough dog parks.” Adding more off-leash areas, he said, is necessary to take the stress off of existing ones.

 

To that end, OLAAC and PARD staff have been exploring the possibility of establishing an off-leash area at Mabel Davis District Park in southeast Austin, Abplanalp said. The committee has also discussed expanding the off-leash area at Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park in northeast Austin, he said.

 

Abplanalp further reported that committee members have been conducting site reviews of current off-leash areas to identify needed improvements and maintenance and surveying users to determine their wants and needs.

 

Parks Board Member Carol Lee said that the surveys should include park visitors who are not off-leash users. “It’s very important to know who the OLA (off-leash area) users are, where they come from, and how they use the park,” she said. “I want to see that we’re careful not to exclude other users. … We have to look out for all users.”

 

PARD staff was taking all users into consideration in order to avoid use conflicts, Soliz said, bringing up the example of clashes between off-leash dogs at Auditorium Shores and walkers, runners, and cyclists using the Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail.

 

“We’ve learned from our past mistakes,” Soliz said.

 

Pairing off-leash areas with community members is also an OLAAC priority. All but four off-leash areas, Abplanalp said, currently have adopters. An extension of the Adopt-a-Park program, off-leash-area adopters act as liaisons with PARD to maintain and improve the areas. The committee’s goal is to have those last four areas adopted by the end of the summer, he said.

 

“We have made it a high priority to close those gaps,” he said.

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