Tofino is unleashing a new community engagement strategy in the hopes of putting a longtime local issue at heel.
The district plans to have at least one designated area for off-leash dogs in place by the summer with Tonquin Beach, Tonquin Connector Trail, Centennial Park and South Chesterman Beach the current frontrunners.
Currently, all dogs must be leashed at all times in public spaces.
During Dec. 5’s Committee of the Whole meeting, Manager of Protective Services Brent Baker explained that, along with the four selected frontrunners, other locations may be highlighted throughout the public engagement process, though he noted that any location must be safe for both humans and dogs, away from high traffic areas and outside residential zones.
“We have had some suggestions that, while they may seem very very good, they’re in dense residential areas with lots of children, so introducing lots of traffic as people make their way into that area may create an issue,” he said.
He added hazards to shorebirds must also be considered, explaining that Tonquin Beach is not a frequented nesting ground.
“Through conversations that we’ve had with the Raincoast Education Society and the research that we’ve been doing, we don’t currently see concern for the shorebirds but that is an ongoing conversation that we’re having with various organizations,” he said.
He added the Tonquin Beach site would also keep off-leash dogs away from beachgoers looking to exercise as the area is too small for long walks or jogs.
“Where we’ve had issues with the conflict between humans and dogs is typically where people have been going to get their exercise,” he said.
He said Tonquin Connector Trail was also a solid candidate.
“It has some different features, it’s a bit more open, the sightlines are better, the trail itself is wider, it’s got a better grading to it and I think it lends itself a bit better to having multiple types of uses on there at one time,” he said.
He said Centennial Park would require the most infrastructure improvements as fencing would need to be installed and there is no washroom in the area.
“It gets used already. You’ll often see people that go to the park with small children and let the dogs off at the same time, so it’s a way to combine a couple uses, but keeping it safe by fencing it keeps the dogs out of the immediate concern for the traffic,” he said. “It would require fencing. It’s not a vast amount of space and there’s no washroom.”
He said the South Chesterman location would be seasonal due to potential conflicts with humans and shorebirds.
“This could easily be debated, but some would say that there is less use for surfers and general beachgoers at the south end than there is at the north end,” he said. “We would definitely have to put up some boundary signs, so there would be increased education requirements with this one because of multiple user groups and just the sheer numbers of people.”
Director of Community Services April Froment suggested more than one off-leash dog area would likely be needed.
“There’s generally good support for one or more, and I would suggest it probably is more than one, off-leash dog location,” she said. “There’s probably no 100 per cent right answer on this. There’s no perfect location, but we do need to consider any proposed location quite carefully. By taking a public space out of service for the public and identifying it as an off-leash area, we are to some extent sterilizing that space for the general public.”
She suggested the district enter into a pilot project, trying out a location for a year and “tinker with that overtime.”
Coun. Sarah Sloman asked whether areas could open to off-leash dogs during specific times of day.
Baker said he found the idea of time slots “extremely challenging.”
“People have to be willing to commit to a specific time and I think we could all agree that there’s no one time that’s going to work for everybody and so there’s always going to be some challenges with that,” he said. “It’s definitely much easier to support something that is very clear, it’s either allowed or it’s not…Seasonal has its own challenges but it’s much easier to do an opening or closing than it is multiple times throughout the day.”
Mayor Dan Law suggested nighttime is problematic for human-dog conflicts.
“I’ve been here a couple decades and it’s my experience that, when the sun goes down, no beaches or paths or anywhere is safe when there’s off-leash dogs. It seems to me both the dog aggression goes very high as well as the owner aggression seems to increase,” Law said. “It’s certainly prevented me, many times, from going on the beach with children at night.”
He added that dogs should be expected to behave in any areas they’re allowed to run free.
“Even an off-leash designated area should still be a safe place for everybody,” he said. “The dog owners are expected to still have dogs that behave and are not aggressive and violent and are safe. I think the underlying thing here is that, if we have designated off-leash areas, violent or aggressive dogs are still a problem and I think that message also has to get out there that that has to be addressed by the dog owners themselves.”