Forty years after Napa bought the Alston Park land for a never-built mega-sports complex, the 157 acres of brushy open space seems to have – finally—entered an era of relative peace.
Talk of a sports complex hasn’t arisen since the late 1990s. Public fights over dogs, hot air balloon landings and whether Alston Park should exist at all have either ended or are simmering beneath the surface.
Measure A, passed by voters in 2003 to settle the ballfield battles by limiting the park to low-intensity uses such as hiking, expires this year. A co-founder of the group that promoted the ballot initiative doesn’t expect another Alston Park land use war to break out.
“The usage is pretty well accepted as it is now,” Tony Norris said.
Alston Park is a place to hike five miles of trails, to enjoy views of the city and to watch the sun set behind the Mayacamas Mountains. It’s where dogs romp, multi-color balloons land, mountain bikers charge down steep hills and Boy Scouts earn their Eagle awards by installing benches and doing other projects.
City Parks and Recreation Services Director John Coates said Alston Park has reached “kind of that sweet spot” of what people want to enjoy there. Even with the expiration of Measure A, the city isn’t reviving the sports complex idea.
“We have turned our sights to Kennedy Park as being more of the center of active recreation,” Coates said.
On the 40th anniversary of the land buy, an uneasy Pax Alston seems to reign.
Dogs, dogs, dogs
Alston Park is Napa’s Dogland, the place where pooches can roam off-leash over 39 acres. For better or worse –depending on your point of view – this park has gone to the dogs.
Jackie Koch on a recent Saturday morning met her friends in the fenced-in, 3-acre Canine Commons near the park entrance, as she’s done for a dozen years.
“It gives us some place to take our pooches offleash,” Koch said. “We have the greyhounds. They have a tendency to take off.”
The former plum orchard in the upper park offers dogs an even bigger space to romp, with a mile-long trail circling the perimeter. Here, offleash dogs and people who hike in the park without a dog mix.
Marcela Gateb, Alex Valenzuela and Angela White rested in the upper area after a 5-k run. They were training for the Turkey Chase, and Alston is a favorite running spot. For one thing, they can look at views of the city of Napa and vineyards as they pound along the dirt trails.
“It’s like an add-on when you’re training,” White said.
Gateb, Valenzuela and White had no dog, but sometimes someone else’s off-leash dog will approach them while they’re training. The trio didn’t complain about the situation.
“They’re running along with us,” Gateb said. “Even if they’re off-leash, they’re trained.”
Officially, dogs are supposed to be off-leash only in the designated 39 acres. Dogs in the rest of the park, such as the hilly areas, legally must be on-leash.
Anyone who goes to Alston Park on a regular basis knows people often flout this rule despite signs marking the distinct zones. A dog bounding up to hikers in the on-leash area is always a possibility, though not necessarily a probability on any given day.
“Don’t worry, my dog is friendly,” some dog owners say in these situations. But if the other person has a leashed dog that isn’t friendly, a doggie confrontation can result.
Some dog owners take a middle view toward the leash law. They’ll let their dog off-leash in the leash-only portion of the park, but snap a leash on their pet as soon as they see another person approaching.
Crackdowns on leash-law violators have come and gone. During a 1999 crackdown, dog owners convinced the city to back off by picketing City Hall.
Napa police about a decade ago again cracked down on dog owners who ignore the leash rule. An officer would park around the bend of the park’s access road near the water tanks and ticket the scofflaws.
At one point, an officer issued 37 citations over several weeks at a cost of about $88 a ticket, a 2008 Napa Valley Register story said.
Police Lt. Chase Haag in a recent email said police, park rangers and animal control officers issued no Alston Park leash-law citations over the past year. While police hear feedback by email and over Facebook about leash violations, they have not received many complaints to the dispatch center.
“But as someone who frequents the park on my time off, it appears there are more people violating the leash law than following it,” Haag said.
Police have not deployed bike officers on weekends to Alston as much this past year. That’s because of requests to have these officers in the downtown area more frequently, Haag said.
Coates said park rangers are giving warnings to owners who violate the leash law rather than handing out citations. They talk to people about best behavior in a park that has a variety of uses that sometimes conflict with each other.
“We’ve taken a different approach and tried to take more of an educational perspective,” Coates said.
Oaks, oaks, oaks
About 70 people on a recent morning went to the flat, upper section of Alston Park once targeted for a controversial sports complex. They wielded shovels not to create baseball diamonds, but to plant acorns.
“Future oak woodlands,” said Eric McKee of the Napa Resource Conservation District. “That would be pretty nice from a hot, dusty field of weeds.”
Upper Alston Park is largely devoid of large trees, though there are some impressive oaks on the fringes. The district and other groups over the past few years have planted acorns by the hundreds to try to change this.
“If you look at the hillside behind us, that’s what this space once was,” McKee said.
That hillside outside of park boundaries is the slope of the Mayacamas Mountains and it looks like a forest. This largely bare section of Alston Park may never look like that, but McKee can envision it in coming decades as becoming a less-dense version of the city’s Westwood Hills Park, a kind of oak savannah.
Ted Witten came to the acorn-planting event as part of the Rotary Club of North Napa. The 80-year-old Napa native remembers when orchards covered the land now used for the park and nearby subdivisions.
“Napa was mainly plums, prunes, pears and apples,” he said.
Despite his long Napa history, this day marked his first time being in Alston Park. He liked what he saw.
“I think it’s good people can use it,” Witten said. “I know housing is an issue, but we need to preserve this for people.”
Mike Walund planted acorns with his 8-year-old daughter Dresden. They dug the hole and installed the wire basket designed to keep away hungry gophers.
Walund is an Alston-park user. He comes to run, ride his bike and walk his dog.
“It’s a great dog park,” Walund said. “I would say it’s one of the best around.”
He remembers the 1999 proposal to put ballfields in Alston Park. But he also sees a check on such ideas.
“The dog walkers are a strong force up here,” Walund said.
Almost any conversation about Alston Park at some point comes around to dogs. McKee, for example, likes to talk oaks, but he can also talk dogs. An Alston Park with more natural vegetation would mean less foxtails and thistles that can plague dogs.
“I have a dog and this is a very dog-accessible space that’s close to town,” McKee said.
Battles, battles, battles
Napa County bought the Alston Park land 40 years ago and the controversies soon began.
The land had been owned by the Alston Land Company and the owners wanted to build a subdivision. Attorney Robert Zeller made the case to the city in the summer of 1975. The land was only marginally suitable for agriculture and the owners paid taxes based on future residential use. The $720-a-year grazing lease didn’t cover the $8,600-a-year in taxes, he said.
Despite that plea, the city left the land out of its urban boundaries. With no development possible anytime soon, the landowners were eager to sell.
In December 1975, the City Council decided to explore buying the 157 acres. City officials wanted to build sports fields and possibly even a golf course.
The land deal finally went through in early 1978. Napa bought Alston Park for either $300,000 or $350,000 – reports vary – and paid for it using federal and state funds. Then the planning began.
Napa in April 1979 unveiled its Alston Park master plan. Five lighted ballfields, soccer fields, trails, an amphitheater, a community pool, a community building and other features would make the park a recreation hub.
Mayor Ralph Bolin called the idea a “beautiful-looking complex,” but added “I only wish we had the money to do it all.”
Opposition soon arose. One opponent called the plan “a $10 million boondoggle.” Voters in June 1980 voted to keep the park outside of city limits and voted down a measure to raise park development money, all in hopes of scotching the master plan.
Finally, the city in 1990 decided to open Alston Park as a passive-use park for hiking and similar activities. Opposition arose from some neighbors who didn’t want to see any public use there at all.
“They are not going to get a park, they are going to get a pasture with a parking lot and Porta-Pottys,” an opponent told The Napa Register. “It seems like a rather senseless use of taxpayers’ money.”
Alston Park opened on Aug. 4, 1990 and disputes continued.
In 1999, ballfield proponents wanted to locate a complex there. That fight led to the 2003 ballot measure that took such development off the table for 15 years.
In 2007, several citizens complained about hot air balloon landings in Alston Park. The City Council classified ballooning as recreational rather than commercial and allowed the landings to continue. A conservation easement on the park held by the Land Trust of Napa County allows “public recreational activity.”
In 2008, some dog owners wanted more than 31 acres as a dog off-leash area. They wanted the entire park. Opponents responded with stories about being knocked down by romping, off-leash dogs.
The City Council in July 2008 said “no” to making Alston Park one, entire off-leash area. Instead, it increased the off-leash area from 31 acres to 39 acres. Posts and signs went up delineating the boundaries between on-leash and off-leash areas.
No Alston Park battles seem to be brewing at the moment. No group is going to the City Council in an effort to change the uses there. The city’s next planned improvement for Alston isn’t ballfields, but a restroom hooked up to the sewer to replace the portable toilets.
Alston Park has found an identity that’s different than the elaborate plans of four decades ago.
“It’s become a go-to spot for dog lovers, hikers, nature enthusiasts,” Coates said.