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Dogs in Montini? No; Dog park in Montini? Yes

Dog leash

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Monday’s City Council meeting explored the prospect of amending the management plan for the Montini Open Space Preserve, to allow leashed dogs on the narrow trail that winds from the west edge of the Vallejo State Historic Park to the First Street West border of the 98-acre property.

It’s an enticing prospect for dog lovers and, we have come to believe, a bad idea. The reason, ironically, has much in common with the prospect of a citywide ban on the use of gas-powered leaf blowers – an ordinance approved by a 3-2 council majority that night – and the question of where your rights cross mine.

There is no question that our canine companions need and deserve more open space in which to romp and range. Proponents of a dog-accessible preserve point to the new, 1,000-acre Taylor Mountain Regional Park in Santa Rosa, with four miles of trails, on all of which leashed dogs are allowed. Taylor Mountain, we have to assume, is home to at least as much wildlife per-acre as the Montini Preserve and apparently Regional Park authorities weren’t concerned with the impact of dogs on the integrity of habitat for undomesticated creatures.

Well and good.

But Taylor Mountain’s very size, and the extensive reach of its trail system, would appear to help minimize, distribute and absorb the presence of dogs in a way the 98 acres and minimal 1-mile trail of Montini can’t.

In fact, after reading authoritative ecological analysis, we’re not concerned about the wildlife impact of dogs in Montini, partly because many studies cited in wildlife impact reports attribute the greatest impact on wildlife density to the presence of humans, with or without dogs.

Rather, it is the impact of dogs on humans that concerns us, and the rights of people to enjoy the Montini Preserve in the solitude of a dog-free environment. The impressive-but-limited trail constructed by the Open Space District isn’t wide enough or long enough to insulate hikers from dog impacts, and while Sonoma is an intensely dog-centric city, not everyone does – or should be forced to – share our canine passions.

On the other hand, the Montini Preserve is large enough, we believe, to easily surrender an acre or two for a fenced-off dog park where our four-legged friends could run free. And we are baffled by the dismissive attitude of the Open Space District to summarily reject such a use.

The postage-stamp-sized dog park next to the police station is smaller than many a Sonoma back yard and clearly doesn’t serve the needs of the community. Less than 100 yards away, within the boundaries of the Montini Preserve, there is abundant room for a fenced-in area of an acre or more, that could be easily landscaped and developed into an ideal dog park. Why that option – which we believe could easily be funded by dog owners themselves – isn’t being further explored, makes no sense to us. Likewise, as Sonoma County authorities develop a new master plan for Maxwell Farms Regional Park, we’d like to see them include analysis of a sizeable, fenced-off dog park within the terrain below the Boys & Girls Club facilities.

And we hope that the city and county can work with the Sonoma Ecology Center to explore other areas of the Valley where leashed dogs could have more access to open space.

  • Fred Allebach

    This is two opinions in a row that I’m down with David Bolling. Dittos from Fred.

  • bob edwards

    In justifying a position that dogs are OK on Taylor Mountain but not on Montini, the editorial argues:
    “But Taylor Mountain’s very size, and the extensive reach of its trail system, would appear to help minimize, distribute and absorb the presence of dogs in a way the 98 acres and minimal 1-mile trail of Montini can’t.”

    Not so. In fact, quite the opposite. As to distributing and absorbing the presence of dogs, the argument totally ignores the reality that the size of the human/dog populations to be ‘distributed and absorbed’ by each area are dramatically different by several orders of magnitude.

    While Taylor Mountain is indeed roughly ten (10) times the size of Montini (1100 acres vs. 98 acres), the population of Santa Rosa that will use Taylor Mountain (c. 170,000) is seventeen (17) times the population of Sonoma (c. 10,000). If I correctly recall statistics recently aired at County-wide meetings of Animal Care & Control, the dog/human ratio is even slightly higher in Santa Rosa than in Sonoma

    Thus, the relative dog presence/pressure — think of it as ‘dogs per square foot’ if you will — on Taylor Mountain trails is far larger than it will ever be on Montini. It follows that if one believes dogs will be OK on Taylor Mountiain because the impacts will be less, they will be even less on Montini.

    Equally invalid is the argument that, despite Sonoma (allegedly) being a ‘dog-centric’ city, those who do not want to encounter dogs on their nature walks should not be forced to. Fair enough. Overlooked, however, is the glaring reality that the sensitivities of such people — their ‘right’? — has already long been more than accommodated on the City’s (appropriately & in this case ironically named) “Overlook Trail,” from which dogs have always been totally banned. The Overlook offers hikers without dogs a 3 mi. nature walk; Montini will only provide dog-lovers a 1 mile hike A wag might say that allowing dogs on Montini trails is like tossing dog-lovers a bone (Sorry — I just couldn’t resist).

    So Query: if a ‘balancing of rights’ is a valid exeercise, at what point is the balance struck? When do the rights of dog-lovers get factored into Sonoma’s nature-walking picture? Everyone’s taxes went into and will continue to pay for Montini & its maintenance — as they do for Overlook, Taxpayer provided natural areas of Sonoma belong to everyone to share. They are NOT – and never will be – the personal private preserve of any special interest group.

    Both arguments for keeping dogs off Montini trails having been shown to be demonstrably flawed, I know our honorable editor will want to print a retraction favoring both a dog park AND leashed dogs on Montini’s trail.

  • Fred Allebach

    Bob is a great arguer, a formidable opponent, but in this case his great talents have less red meat to chew on than with Measure B. The main question at stake is not what is fair to dog owners in Sonoma but whether allowing dogs on the Montini trail is an appropriate land use. The current management plan and vision statement say no. Apparently the director of the Open Space District, Bill Keen, has no philosophical objections to allowing leashed dogs on the trail. If this is the case, why is the city spending $7000 to just change a few words to allow dogs? Is the environmental review going to be just finding someone who says dogs are OK and consistent with the plan? Will the Vision Statement then need to be changed also? The status of the environmental review will be interesting to watch unfold as one, why do it if the director’s mind is already made up? Two, what if the review shows that dogs are an inappropriate use? How will we know that the reviewing entity is unbiased? Is the purpose of the review to pass the amendment allwing dogs or is it to have an unbiased look? Will the director maybe need to back track on his word to Steve Barbose and not allow the plan to be amended to allow leashed dogs?

    The Vision Statement is part of the Management Plan. As I read the Vision Statement I am struck by the clear communication of conservation purpose and conservation values: high quality, diverse wildlife habitat, natural setting, minimal impacts to wildlife habitat. I don’t see any land manager speaking of the latter qualities and having dogs at the same time. Dogs and the latter listed land use qualities simply do not add up as part of the same equation. This is what David Bolling, myself and others are saying about land management values for solitude, quiet, chance for inspiration, introspection. Those qualities are managed for people, not dogs, and stem from allowing land to be as natural as possible, allowing nature preserve land to not be a simple extension of town, creating the context and possibility for the latter values and qualities to exist so that people are able to find them.

    Additionally, the land in question is noted in the plan as having high quality fawn bedding areas for deer. Studies show that prey animals are more susceptible to disturbance by dogs. Will the amended plan have to say “tough luck for those deer”?

    Dog owners can take a 5 minute ride to Bartholomew Park if they want nature for Fido, I don’t know why they ignore that? Probably because the main group of them live in the center of town and they don’t want to have to be the ones to drive to exercise their dogs. Someone will have to drive to a dog park and they just don’t want it to be them.

    Maybe this all will be global warning all over again and everyone will have their own facts? You can always find someone to tell you what you want to hear. Still, in this case of land management principles and values, the strongest arguments should win out. The judges will be first Bill Keen, and then maybe Ken Brown and David Cook. My first argument here is that the Management Plan and Vision Statement need to be consistent and they already seem to indicate that dogs are not an appropriate use, beyond just a few words to allow pets or not. The whole tone of the plan and vision statement will need to be changed to allow dogs.

  • bob edwards

    I certainly understand Fred’s point when he says: “The main question at stake is not what is fair to dog owners in Sonoma but whether allowing dogs on the Montini trail is an appropriate land use. The current management plan and vision statement say no.’

    I agree that the ‘appropriate land use’ is the starting point for evaluating the ‘fairness’ of all uses of public natural Open Space land.

    In that regard, consider that just about all of the open space/parks/preserves/wild-lands in Sonoma County and certainly in Sonoma Valley have virtually identical wildlife/plant-life eco-systems. With rare exceptions which are usually the result of having a water feature (a la Tolay Lake Preserve) or a difference in topography (mountains vs. plains vs. wetlands), one can pass from one to another without encountering much if anything in the way of biological diversity/differences. Cattle and other domestic animals are commonly found on lands like Montini which were acquired from still-active ranching/farming operations.

    The reality of what is “appropriate”use of such land is and always has been whatever the Open Space District decides it is, and no one should be confused or fooled by the label put on the land in question — “preserve” or “park” or “open space,” etc. If a particular “use” — recreation or otherwise — is proposed for a piece of property, the management plan typically includes “mitigation measures” designed to minimize the conservation impacts of the “use” in question so that it is consistent with the ‘conservation values’ in the original acquisition easement. That’s the case with ALL environmental reviews. Fracking might be banned, but everything else can be ‘mitigated.’

    On Taylor Mountain for example, as in most Regional Parks and even at Tolay Lake, leashed dogs are allowed because their impact to the ‘conservation values’ has been mitigated by requiring owners to leash their dogs, or keep them in fenced off-leash dog parks. The leashes and fences are considered valid mitigation measures that allow dogs to be consistent with the conservation values. Another such measure — on Montini and the Overlook trail — is requiring human hikers to stay on the trails; making humans stay on trails and not allowing them to frollick into the vegetation is considered a ‘mitigation measure.’

    Reading the ‘management plans’ for the various areas that Open Space has had jurisdiction over makes all this pretty clear, as does the acknowledgement by Mr. Keene & the Open Space District (and the County BOS) and the City Planner that the ONLY reason the Montini management plan currently excludes dogs is because Montini was originally going to be turned over to State Parks which — as a matter of policy — generally (but not in all cases) prohibits dogs and makes no “mitigation’ exceptions.

    The “Vision Statements” for Montini and Taylor Mountain (and Healdsburg) are all very similar in tone and language. Remember that the mission of the Open Space District is essentially to acquire lands & easements to preserve the open space from DEVELOPMENT. That benefits wildlife by protecting the ONE THING they need to survive: habitat. They are otherwise capable of surviving quite well in the presence of dogs, particularly on leash or behind a fence, just as they do in the presence of the predators (owls, bobcats, coyotes, etc) that share their habitat. Not to mention decades in the presence of 1,200 pound cattle who trample & defecate on nests and burrows with little regard for the ‘management plans’ or ‘vision statements.

    That wildlife co-exists with humans in the Valley – even in the heart of the City – is beyond dispute. And in the context of the conservation values, mitigated as permitted in a management plan, it is not only ‘fair’ but ‘appropriate’ that dogs be allowed on Montini.

  • Fred Allebach

    Hi Bob. Insofar as use issues are decided on a case by case basis; as this process goes forward, I’m going to insist that the words in the Montini Management Plan mean what they say they mean. If there is a document that for all intents and purposes is emphasizing conservation values, that in a commonly understood way, would not include dogs, then it makes no sense to “mitigate” that to say the opposite. Words can’t mean two contradictory things at the same time. If other people jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge (with dog mitigation), that is not typically a strong reason for why I or anyone else should too.

    ‘When I use a word’, Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean——neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can
    make words mean so many different things.’ Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

    As I see it, the environmental review is the next critical threshold and it will be interesting to see how that all works out and what the Open Space director might be open to. Mitigation (or not) can possibly cut all ways. If anything can be mitigated then maybe there is a chance for a dog park on Montini but no dogs on the trail? It all seems to be a matter of preference for land use flavor and who has the power and influence to lock that preference into law. There is precedent for all preferences here. Meanwhile, the rainy season of words is upon us!

  • Chris Scott

    Dogs in wild. Ban hotels in Sonoma. That’s coherent.