Salt Lake City's wild gulch at the mouth of Parleys Canyon is about to see something foreign: governance.
By a 4-3 vote Tuesday, the City Council passed a management plan for Parleys Historic Nature Park that continues to allow significant off-leash dog use too much for Mayor Ralph Becker but cordons off some of the 63 acres in the name of environmental protection.
The vote concludes a four-year saga on how to balance recreation at the popular gulch and its creek that most patrons agree has been "loved to death."
But the drama may not be over. Becker's staff has repeated that any plan that allows dogs off leash on the south side of Parleys Creek as the final plan does would see a veto. Becker would not commit either way Tuesday. "It causes me great concern, both from an environmental standpoint and a user standpoint," the mayor said. "I'll have to wait and make that judgment later."
The final plan is a hybrid of the mayor's latest recommendations, made this week, and the council's push for dogs on the south side. It will allow three off-leash dog areas two with water access covering 10 acres, along with dog access on all trails except the new north-side Parleys Trail. Dog access would be restricted from the south slope by the neighborhood at 2870 East. Two west-end entrances near Tanner Park would accommodate dogs and other gulch users, and a new parking area will be created with an on-leash path to the park.
The blueprint creates a 50-foot buffer from the high-water mark of the creek, designates the slopes on both sides as a no-dog restoration area, and maintains a BMX bike area. So-called "social" trails will be closed, while the ones nearest the creek will be moved to avoid further erosion. Besides protecting the streambed, the moves are designed to save the wetlands, springs and historical sites. Still, unleashed dogs will have their run of more than half the gulch's navigable space.
"I recognize that this is a solution that not everybody is going to be happy with, but I think it's a solution that works," said Councilman Soren Simonsen. "It was established as a park. Parks are not preserves."
Councilmen J.T. Martin, Carlton Christensen and Van Turner voted against the management plan. "I hope it works," Christensen said. "I don't have that confidence."
Sitting technically on Salt Lake County's map, the gulch may be annexed by the city if the council follows up on that pledge. That would mean all enforcement, and its cost, would fall to City Hall. Next year, the city will consider a potential fee for Parleys users to offset the cost of patrol, garbage cans and new fencing.
While paying for access may seem extreme, some residents say it makes sense.
"If dog owners want off-leash areas for their dogs, they need to pay for that luxury," resident Elaine Brown told the council.
After all, the damage is more than visual. Becker's team showed the council a new letter by a watershed scientist that said E. coli levels over the summer were so high in the creek that "they exceeded the ability of our methodology to read." The letter points to fecal contamination that "should not be overlooked."
Bob Thompson of Salt Lake County Watershed Planning and Restoration also warns that allowing dogs to access the creek violates the Clean Water Act and may result in "significant consequences" from regulatory agencies.
Even so, those favoring the plan argue the buffer and slope restriction should significantly improve water quality while maintaining the gulch primarily as a dog park.
"I do not see a reason to keep dogs off the south side," said Councilwoman Jill Remington Love, adding that to do so would hamper the experience for dog lovers.
Public Works Director Rick Graham countered, unsuccessfully, that the south trail is the only refuge for walkers, birders, nature painters and even the disabled.
Becker says he will decide on a veto as soon as he gets the formal council action, "maybe in a day."
It would take five council votes to overturn a veto.