New signs (right) instructing walkers to keep dogs on leash on South Park Drive in Tilden Park have prompted an outcry by many locals. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Dog walkers who use South Park Drive in Tilden Park for the five months a year when it is closed to cars say recently erected signs that instruct them to keep their dogs on leash contradict a law drafted by the park district 13 years ago. They want the signs taken down and argue that the cyclists who use the stretch of road when it is free of cars constitute a bigger threat to the newts the road’s closure is intended to protect than dogs, whether on- or off-leash.

“There is no legal support for their action. They have acted in excess of their jurisdiction,” said attorney Rena Rickles speaking about the East Bay Regional Park District’s decision to put up the signs in November. Rickles is working pro bono for a group of disgruntled dog walkers more than 50 of whom took their concerns to an EBRPD board meeting on Thursday Dec. 19.

Newt sign
A hand-posted sign on a gate on South Park Drive explains why the road is closed every year for five months. Photo: Tracey Taylor

The district said it had put up the signs to remind walkers of a law (Ordinance 38) which has been in place but not enforced historically. “We were concerned we had a law that we didn’t enforce for many years,” said board member Ayn Wieskamp.

The road is used by many dog walkers when it is closed to cars every year (between Nov. 1 and March 31) in order to protect the area’s newt population during the mating season, which usually coincides with the rainy season. (Passions run high locally about the newts. Last year local residents lobbied for the district to close the road early due to early rains. With the lack of rain this year, this has not been an issue.)

Many dog walkers prefer to let their pets walk off leash so the dogs can get good exercise. Seniors in particular favor South Park Drive for dog walking as it is paved, wide and largely free of nuisances such as ticks, burrs and poison oak, said Randi Plotner, one of about 20 people who spoke publicly at the EBRPD meeting.

Gene Poschman prepared supporting evidence and materials for the board concerning the issue on behalf of the South Park Drive Users Group. He submitted to the board an e-petition with more than 600 signatures and another petition signed by many dozens of walkers while on South Park Drive. Poschman argued enforcing the ruling was a women’s issue as well as a senior issue. He said he estimated 70% of the people who walk their dogs on the stretch of road are female.

Liz Horowitz echoed Poschman’s statement. “I used to be afraid of hiking alone and now I hike every day,” she told the board.

Nancy Powell, another dog walker giving public testimony, urged the board not to fix something that wasn’t broken. “In our family we wait for November 1st because it opens a great resource for us. When it’s raining the trails off South Park Drive are impassible. It’s not possible for seniors to use them.”

Like others, Powell said the cyclists who fail to observe the 15 mph limit on the road should be under closer scrutiny by the district. “Ban the bikes…,” she said. “No-one goes under 25 mph down that road. Look at the dead newts and see how many have paw prints on them and how many have bicycle tracks.”

It was also pointed out that dogs are not attracted to newts — they shy away from their smell and their sliminess.

Signs or no signs, it does not appear that either the leash ruling or the speed limit for cyclists are often enforced by authorities. Lt. Rose Gretchen of the East Bay Regional Park District Police Department said there had been only ten calls over the past 13 years for incidents on South Park Drive. She added that there were more calls that were not documented, and that she believed there were more dog incidents than bike incidents. She said enforcement was a challenge as vehicles are not allowed on South Park Drive so the police do not patrol by car.

A newt and a salamander on South Park Drive. Photo: Alan Shabel

There was a sense of déjà vu for many of the protesters who showed up at Oakland’s EBRPD headquarters last week. A good number of them had come out to address the board on exactly the same points in 2000 and were disappointed to have to argue their case again.

Rickles, who was involved 13 years ago, said the relevant law (Ordinance 38 subsection 801.2.a, 2.b. and 2.c.) was reviewed and new language was added in 2000 to ensure that when the stretch of road was closed, people could walk their dogs off leash.

“It was amended to cover this exact situation,” she said on Friday. She added that it was  “pretty audacious” for the district to go back on its own ruling.

The board conceded it had not consulted its legal department before reviewing the issue this year and putting up the signs, and pledged to do so now.

“We shouldn’t lose the memory of Ordinance 38,” said board member Beverly Lane who pointed out there had been a big staff turnover at EBRPD with many employees retiring. “Maybe that discussion did not get conveyed beyond the scope of the ordinance.”

Meanwhile the signs are still there and, according to the protesters, there has been a decrease in the number of people walking their dogs on South Park Drive.

Diana Jacobs said she had noticed recently that the stretch of road was sometimes almost empty. “For park managers this isn’t a good result,” she told the board. Eyes and ears on the ground has got to be good for safety, she said.

The board promised to review the situation and report back. Rickles said the only mistake she and the dog-walking lobbyists made was not insisting that the board put the issue on its January 7 agenda. “By the time we get round to February the season will be almost over,” she said.

Read more about wildlife in Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

Locals call for road closure to prevent slaughter of newts (10.26.12)

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...