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Lake Merritt Dog Park Remains in Limbo

A decision on a controversial proposal for a dog play area near Lakeshore Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard has been delayed again. But don't blame the Oakland City Council ...

A controversial proposed dog play area at Lake Merritt fell into a sort of legal limbo at Tuesday night's Oakland City Council meeting, with a decision delayed until at least April of 2013.

The delay came about through a combination of moves by City Administrator Deanna J. Santana, city planning staff and Mayor Jean Quan.

With council members deadlocked 4-4 on whether to approve or reject the proposal, Quan refused to cast a tie-breaking vote.

Instead, she's hoping both sides can agree on another location — possibly near the intersection of Bellevue and Grand avenues or near the McElroy Fountain in Lakeside Park. Both sites — and particularly the Bellevue Avenue one — are considerably closer to the islands that form the heart of Lake Merritt's bird sanctuary. 

Council members had expected to reach a decision Tuesday night — technically, to decide whether to approve or deny an appeal of the Oakland Planning Commission's earlier rejection of the proposal.

Their expectations were derailed when Santana withdrew the application for the dog park altogether, an action that was possible because the formal applicant is the city's own Park and Recreation Department.

It appeared that only two council members, plus Quan, were aware of the withdrawal in advance. The move brought harsh words from some council members.

"You are saying 'the city' is the city administrator," said Councilmember Libby Schaaf. "I do not think this is becoming of your personal integrity to do this without warning, without discussion."

Councilmember Nancy Nadel, who has worked closely with constituents in the Adams Point area for several years to develop dog park plans, called the move "another wild goose chase" for residents who have waited 10 years for an of-leash dog play area. She said theres no room in Oakland's next city budget to develop plans for a whole new site — something she estimated could cost close to $250,000.

The withdrawal appears to be in large part at Quan's urging.

"This has been so divisive," Quan said. "I hope we can pause over vacation so we don't get into lawsuits. It is our failure in not providing alternatives [to the Astro Park site]."

The dog play area appeal was the subject of a lengthy public hearing Dec. 4, when council members voted 4-3 to grant the appeal (that is, they were in favor of the dog play area at Astro Park). Both Quan and Councilmember Jane Brunner were absent from that meeting.

According to City Attorney Barbara Parker, a vote on a planning commission appeal requires five council members — a majority of the full eight-member council, not just those in attendance at the meeting — to agree. In the case of a 4-4 split, Quan would cast the deciding vote.

Brunner surprised some observers Tuesday when she stated she was opposed to park and joined Desley Brooks, Patricia Kernighan and Council President Larry Reid in voting against it. That left the deciding vote to Quan, who said she would "delay" her vote until there is time to explore the alternative sites with both sides. 

Oddly, the vote on the appeal must remain on each council agenda until a decision is reached (likely with an attached comment that the city council will not act on the matter at that meeting). Quan said she wanted until early April before deciding.

In another oddity, the creation of a dog park doesn't necessarily require action by either the council or the planning commission. City staff have the authority to make that decision, said Scott Miller, interim director of planning and zoning.

If staff approve a dog park, though, any appeal would go to the planning commission, he said.

The Astro Park proposal went to the planning commission because it was so controversial, Miller said.

Quan added, "We got our dog park in Redwood Heights without the planning commission. There can be 60 to 90-day approval."

A tongue-in-cheek slide presentation by a public speaker at Tuesday's meeting failed to lighten the mood of council members and attendees. In that presentation, a cat-faced "Chairman Meow" urged council members to end feline segregation, approved a fenced cat play area and allow cats in restaurants. 

Both those favoring the dog park — many of them members of O-Dog, a coalition of local dog owners — and the somewhat more loosely organized opponents had asked the council to make a decision one way or the other Tuesday night.

The dog park issue has divided the Lake Merritt community, and even a recent mediation session — led by a professional mediator who volunteered his services — didn't help the two sides reach any compromise, council members said at their Dec. 4 meeting.

The dog play area, if ever approved, would be a little under half an acre, with a four-foot-high fence screened by plantings. A concrete foundation would be covered by several inches of wood chips. The interior would be divided into sections for large and small dogs. 

It would occupy part of an area that's now covered in turf and used mainly for children's play and pick-up soccer games and other sports, along with occasional youth group activities. The Grand Lake Farmers Market sets up shop nearby on weekends.

Plans for a dog park in the area have been in the works for nearly 15 years, and it's been part of the city's Master Plan for Lake Merritt since 2006. City staff recommended the exact site because — among other reasons — it's far enough from Lake Merritt itself to avoid contamination and as distant as possible from the core of the lake's bird sanctuary area.

Proponents of the dog park cite the need for a space where nearby residents — especially those in the densely populated Adams Point neighborhood, where many apartment dwellers don't have backyards — can exercise their pets. Several speakers in favor of the park were disabled or senior citizens who said it's difficult for them to drive to other off-leash dog parks.

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