First off-leash dog park approved for Beverly Hills

Each March, thousands turn up — on two legs and four — for Woofstock 90210, Beverly Hills' canine celebration.

Dogs bejeweled, dogs in shades, dogs in tutus and sneakers. There's no doubt that the century-old city loves its pooches.

But it wasn't until recently that the City Council approved a site for Beverly Hills' first off-leash dog park, which residents have been asking for going on a decade.

Therein lies a tale that, in some details, is unique to its setting.

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Beverly Hills is a small city full of big voices. Powerful residents expect to be heard.

So even a proposal to set aside a modest rectangle of decomposed granite for dogs can generate plenty of political heat.

Before the vote, at a City Council meeting that lasted until nearly 1 a.m., supporters and opponents lined up to have their say. Quite a few complained about having to commute to Brentwood to give their dogs an opportunity to socialize and run free.

Political consultant and lobbyist Harvey Englander spoke while holding the leash of his 17-month-old Portuguese water dog, Rux. He said it took 45 minutes each way to drive to the Brentwood park — and another hour to clean the wood chips and dirt off Rux.

"It's not like they're asking you to approve medical marijuana," said attorney Ronald Richards, who also came to push for a local park. "If you ever try to drive past the 405, you can never get back after 2."

On Nov. 17, the council finally voted to build a park at the corner of Foothill Road and Alden Drive. Nothing swanky, just a bench or two, a little shade, separate areas for pups small and large.

"This is something that our community has been waiting for for so long," said Lili Bosse, a Beverly Hills councilwoman who led the charge.

The months of back-and-forth had been bruising.

Public debate grew so passionate that there were charges of anti-Semitism, and proposed rules led to talk of elitism.

"Surprise, the First Beverly Hills Dog Park Will be Super Exclusive," read one headline on laist.com before the City Council voted.

Yes, it's true, officials have conceded: The 40-dog-maximum space probably will be open at first only to the spayed or neutered, vaccinated and licensed pups of those who live, work, own businesses or stay as guests in the city. Initially, a park ranger will be on hand to watch the entrance, and it's possible that key-card access might be added down the road.

What is not true, they said, is that the motivation was snobbishness. Rather, the choice of site grew so contentious that concessions had to be made to reach a consensus.

The city studied possibilities for five years, but finding an acceptable spot turned out to be complex. According to Nancy Hunt-Coffey, Beverly Hills' assistant director of community services, the 5.7-square-mile city largely is built out. And each of the half-dozen sites considered raised vocal opposition and practical problems.

One option was the former lawn bowling green at Roxbury Memorial Park — currently being used by the dwindling ranks of the Beverly Hills Croquet Club. Some nearby residents objected, and the council looked elsewhere — in part so as not to take away existing green space. Besides, officials deemed the lawn too small.

The spot they settled on seemed unlikely to raise ire, given its location in an industrial zone surrounded mostly by office buildings.

The roughly 20,000-square-foot parcel sits in one corner of five acres of city land. Right now it's a parking lot for the municipal tree-trimming trucks, which are separated by a fence from the luxury cars stashed on property leased to Mercedes-Benz of Beverly Hills.

The site near City Hall is in the heart of what has become a high-tech corridor, with outposts for Google, YouTube, AOL, Live Nation and Netflix. It's across Foothill from a small animal hospital and the Amanda Foundation, a nonprofit animal rescue. It isn't surrounded by homes whose occupants might be bothered by dog-park sounds and smells.

It is, however, within a block or two of four Orthodox synagogues: Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, Chabad of Beverly Hills, Magen David of Beverly Hills and the West Coast Torah Center.

Incessant barking, representatives said, could jar the peace of their sanctuaries. Dogs heading to the park, potentially let off leash, also could pose a danger to congregants as they walked to services. And in a city of 35,000, crowds waiting to get into the small park could block the sidewalks, making passage difficult and leaving messes behind.

Rules without supervision would be meaningless, they said.

If the park were so near their places of worship, they wanted it closed from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, open to Beverly Hills residents only, supervised by a ranger and equipped with cameras to keep tabs on visitors.

Those for and against the dog park started online petitions — the pro one penned by Tina Sinatra, an animal activist and daughter of Frank — and tensions grew as the time for a decision approached.

At the late-night October council meeting, Englander spoke as Rux squirmed.

"I live in a neighborhood with narrow streets, fast cars, no sidewalks and no place to walk our dogs," he began, interrupting his train of thought to say to Rux: "Sweetie, sit."

"People in dog parks are fastidious. Dogs aren't loud. People pick up after their dogs," he continued. "We have another home in La Quinta in a country club, and I will tell you that all of the newer country clubs in the desert have dog parks. They don't seem to bother the golfers or the tennis players."

Several supporters spoke of the harmony at Woofstock 90210. But some made comments clearly aimed at the synagogues.

"I'm just so tired of a minority of a minority, a special interest group, trying to take control and trying to shout down the majority of the community," resident Larry Sarokin said.

A representative stood to read a letter from Sinatra, which included the statement, "We all have fears. One of mine is that special interest groups will seek to manipulate the democratic process with self-serving fear tactics."

Rabbi Pini Dunner of Young Israel, the leading voice in the synagogues' campaign, stood up to respond.

He said he had gotten involved against his better judgment, and "for this I have been vilified, misrepresented, maligned, criticized, ridiculed, misquoted and worse." Dunner also said he'd been witness to "open anti-Semitism at public meetings."

"To turn this into a campaign of dog owners against Jews and synagogues against dog parks … it's just reprehensible," he said.

In the end, Bosse said, the council agreed in principle to meet opponents' demands part way — no Sabbath closure but restrictions on who can use the park, no doggie cams but a ranger on site for the first six months. The rules have not been finalized; the hope, Bosse said, is that they can be relaxed if some fears prove unfounded.

If all goes smoothly, the park could be ready by next summer — although it would be understandable if some local dogs do not feel the need to leave home.

The Beverly Hills Courier — which heralded the park victory with the headline: "It's Woof-ficial" — recently featured a photo of one city-dwelling miniature pinscher, Sir Monté de Blanc, who seemed quite content hanging out at his custom-built, stained-glass-windowed doggie castle.

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimescitybeat

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A version of this article appeared in print on December 20, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Cloud canine - After months of political woofing, an off-leash dog park is finally approved for Beverly Hills" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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