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Sonoma officials mull dogs on the Plaza

Two influential city commissions met Wednesday to discuss a host of community issues – from environmental action and recreation services to Plaza bike racks and the fate of the city Tree Committee.

But it was the question of whether to allow leashed dogs on the Sonoma Plaza that perked the most ears.

The Sonoma City Council and the Community Services and Environment Commission met in a joint Zoom forum Jan. 12 to consider refining the role and responsibilities of the CSEC and to gauge city officials’ interest in revising certain Plaza policies.

The seven-member Community Services and Environment Commission advises the council on matters related to the preservation and enhancement of parks, recreational facilities, open space and the natural environment and reviews major event applications. CSEC members and the council held the workshop as part of the council’s ongoing review of lower city commissions.

The proposal to allow leashed dogs in the Sonoma square also recommended installing doggie-bag dispensers and signage encouraging owners to clean up after their pets. Dogs would still be prohibited in the children’s playground areas and at the Tuesday Night Market.

Staff said the inability to enforce the current ban on dogs on the Plaza rendered the prohibition toothless. Several council and CSES members were open to a pilot period to test the waters.

Commissioner Kimberly Blattner described herself as an unofficial “cop” on the Plaza, regularly approaching people with dogs to inform them of the prohibition and possible citation. “I know no one ever gets a ticket,” said Blattner. “But I am 100 percent supportive of doing this as a trial period.”

Commissioner Fred Allebach said he was “not opposed” to a trial period, but cautioned that by allowing dogs on the Plaza the city could really be “stepping in it.”

“I’ve got brand new sneakers and I’ve stepped in dog doo twice since getting my sneakers,” said Allebach. “It’s like childhood trauma.”

He said with so many families and kids on the park, dogs could be an “incompatible use.”

“You could just end up with uncleaned-up business there,” warned Allebach. “Who goes and picks stuff up that other people don’t pick up?”

Commissioner Matt Metzler also described an “experience of stepping in it” and predicted a sharp “increase in dog doo” destined for parkgoer shoes.

“I think that’s a big problem,” said Metzler.

Councilmember Madolyn Agrimonti said any pilot program should also include the doggie-bag dispensers for the anticipated excrement. “People aren’t going to bring takeout boxes and put it in there,” she said.

Sonoma resident Bob Edwards spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting to lobby for a temporary lifting of the Plaza dog ban in Sonoma, which he described as “notoriously dog-unfriendly.”

“Virtually all stores around the Plaza allow dogs, (Plaza) restaurants allow dogs in their outside areas,” said Edwards. “These are profit-making businesses. You’d think they would not want dogs if these dogs were going to bite people and poop on the ground and do all these bad things.”

Resident Douglas Wood, however, expressed dismay that “this is even being considered.”

Describing himself as “a youth soccer coach,” Wood said he “can attest to the travesty of having children inadvertently step in dog feces.

“It’s terrible. I’m a dog lover… the problem is that people don’t clean up after their dogs.”

City Events Manager Lisa Janson said she’s fine with any decision the council makes regarding dogs on the Plaza. But, she cautioned: “When you have that many people on the Plaza and put dogs into the mix, I have witnessed dog fights, dogs charging into picnicking people on the ground and, at the end of a Tuesday Night Market, the smear of dog feces on the concrete.”

Expanding bike parking on the Plaza

Commissioners were generally in favor of adding bike racks to the Plaza, with some pointing out additional racks have been in discussion for years with little headway. “Bike racks are cheap, like a hundred bucks,” said Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition director Eris Weaver during the public comment time. “I don’t see how much more talking has to happen for something so simple as getting some metal drilled and screwed into the ground.”

The Tree Committee

The Tree Committee consist of two members of the CSEC and one certified arborist appointed by the chairperson of the CSEC, and reviews the potential impacts of proposed developments to existing trees on or adjacent to project sites. The City Council had previously discussed disbanding the Tree Committee and having city staff assume its responsibilities, but their appeared little impetus toward dissolving the committee at the Wednesday workshop.

“Trees are a hugely important issue for the public and they can get really wild about the discussion about either letting their tree stay up or come down,” said Tree Committee member Blattner. “So there has to be a public forum for someone to discuss taking down their tree.”

City Councilmember Sandra Lowe was also in support. “As someone who almost had 71 trees taken down in my neighborhood and had to get it on the council agenda to save them, I know the difficulty residents have sometimes,” said Lowe.

Climate Action

CSEC member David Morell suggested expanding the Joint Climate Action Subcommittee, which consists of two CSEC members and two council members, and adding a youth member, a nonprofit representative and another CSEC member to the subcommittee. Councilmember Kelso Barnett, meanwhile, questioned whether making it its own separate committee was a more suitable solution.

Public commenter Tom Conlon, however, said whatever the makeup of the committee was, he hoped it would put more “action” in its climate action.

“I’ve spoken with the (past three) city managers about the value of using the CSEC as a settling pond for climate action,” said Conlon. “And what it’s turned into is a playpen for climate action to be debated and then for policies to die and actually never be committed to.

At the conclusion of the meeting, City Manager Garrett Toy said that, as next steps, city staff would compile the information from the joint meeting and get recommendations on each item from the CSEC and bring them to the City Council for further action.

Email Jason Walsh at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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