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In Santa Cruz, a new leash on life

At the urging of businesses that felt they were losing customers, the university town has lifted a 35-year ban aimed at keeping dogs — even leashed, licensed dogs — from setting paw on downtown's main commercial thoroughfare.

August 28, 2011|By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times
  • After 35 years, dogs are finally welcome along downtown Santa Cruz's main commercial thoroughfare.
After 35 years, dogs are finally welcome along downtown Santa Cruz's… (Dan Coyro, The Sentinel )

Over the years, the city of Santa Cruz has called for a presidential impeachment, termination of a war and an end to nuclear weapons.

But allowing people to walk their dogs downtown? Never!

Until now, that is.

At the urging of businesses that felt they were losing customers to more dog-friendly communities, the city has lifted a 35-year ban aimed at keeping dogs — even leashed, licensed dogs — from setting paw on Pacific Avenue, downtown's main commercial thoroughfare.

"This was an opportunity to say yes to something," said Ryan Coonerty, Santa Cruz's mayor and owner of an aged yellow Lab that has always had to enter and leave the family business — Bookshop Santa Cruz — through the back door. Until Thursday, downtown "hosts"— volunteers who greet visitors and answer questions — have had to tell roughly 300 people a month that Fido was canis non grata on Pacific Avenue.

"That's a lot of people to be turning away," said Coonerty, who runs a downtown "co-working space," where freelancers and entrepreneurs — and, sometimes, their dogs — share an office.

A famously liberal university town, Santa Cruz has at least as many dogs as surfboards, bikes and off-key street musicians. An estimated one in four Santa Cruz County families has a dog, as do some of the panhandlers who congregate downtown and, according to one account, were the target of the ban in the first place.

"A lot of opposition to dogs was because they didn't feel we'd properly leashed the homeless," said Whitney Wilde, leader of a Santa Cruz pro-dog group called Woofers and Walkers.

Wilde, who calls her group "a collective of responsible dog owners," said the organization would donate waste bags during the new law's three-month trial period. She organized a Friday night "Mutt Strut" to celebrate the City Council's reversal of its long-standing ban.

But not everyone is thrilled. Some say they shouldn't be required to watch their step as they stroll through the heart of the city.

"I feel for dog owners, but your dog is not my problem," said Dan Vineyard, a software customer relations specialist who said he lost his job in the recession. "This is a wrongheaded approach to generating business."

The issue has simmered for decades.

"There never was anyone who really wanted to take it up," Coonerty said. "There tend to be very emotional, strong feelings on both sides. And once a law goes into effect, there's a tendency to stick with the status quo."

Last year, the Downtown Assn. business group urged the city to take another look. The economy was taking a toll and merchants complained that dog owners were heading for spots like Carmel, where businesses actually set out bowls of water for thirsty pooches. Santa Cruz, it appeared, was losing both good money and good karma.

"It's not strictly based on dollars," said Joe Ferrara, a director of the Downtown Assn. and owner of the Atlantis Fantasyworld comic book shop. "We want people to come downtown with dogs and go home to tell their friends how charming it is. It's a positive experience that doesn't have to do with the exchange of money."

"A lot of people go to Disneyland," Ferrara said, "and don't go on even one ride."

Under the new rules, dogs must be kept on leashes no longer than 6 feet and cannot be tied up while their human companions duck into a store. Owners will be responsible for cleaning up waste, but some residents have raised questions about just how evenly the rules will be enforced.

Frank Lima — a.k.a. "The Great Morgani," an accordionist with 130 wild costumes who is one of downtown's most recognizable figures — tried hard to maintain his neutrality on the issue.

"It all boils down to enforcement," said the 68-year-old Lima, who most recently performed downtown in his Toulouse-Lautrec get-up. "If you're a little old lady from Carmel and you have your poodle with you, well, OK. But if it's someone a bit edgier, are they going to go after those people?"

Zach Friend, a Santa Cruz police spokesman, said he strolled Pacific Avenue on Thursday and, even on the first day of canine liberation, saw only three dogs, all perfectly legal.

"Overall this is a low-priority issue for the department," he said, "and our policy will continue to be one of education where possible and enforcement where necessary."

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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