Good fences make good neighbors, unless those neighbors have four legs and a tail.
That’s the lesson canine owners quickly learn as they try to create parks where dogs can run and socialize freely. The process often takes years amid objections from local officials and residents wary of the sounds and smells — and maintenance costs — that may accompany them.
“It was frustrating,” said Donna Burns, who started campaigning for a park in Egg Harbor Township four years ago. “People don’t understand what a dog park is and the logistics of how it works.”
Since 2009, Burns watched as prospective sites fell through, sometimes after spending thousands of dollars on planning, because of proximity to residential neighborhoods. In May, the township agreed to lease her group a parcel off Swift Avenue, far from any residents.
Meanwhile, one of South Jersey’s few operating dog parks was padlocked last month in Brigantine after five years of sporadic complaints from nearby homeowners.
After heated debate between the two sides, City Council approved a new location next to its Community Center. But the project will need about $23,000 to connect utilities and erect fencing.
City Manager Jennifer Blumenthal said the compromise ultimately came down to an issue of fairness. The dog park served as a social activity, particularly for older residents who have few other outlets in the resort community.
“We do have a lot of money invested in sports (fields) in the area,” she said. “We really need to look at all segments of the population with land use and taxpayer money.”
Dog owners often have limited options beyond their own backyards. Most municipalities prohibit pets running free in public areas because of liability concerns, and most public beaches, including Brigantine, prohibit even leashed dogs in the summer season.
Egg Harbor Township Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough said he always supported the concept of a dog park, but the township had a difficult time finding a good location.
“We did not want to put the dog park in a place where it’d be a nuisance to people who lived nearby,” he said.
McCullough said he looked at other dog parks, including one in Florida, for ideas on how to make it work.
Like many other dog parks, he said, the township’s park will be entirely funded and operated by the citizens who proposed it, with minimal involvement from the municipality.
When Cape May set aside a former Jersey Central Power & Light coal gasification site off Lafayette Street as a dog park in 2007, it shared costs with the Cape May Dog Friendly Association. That group covers any expenses not met by the city’s $20 seasonal dog-park license fee.
City Manager Bruce A. MacLeod said there had not been any complaints about the park because it has few residential neighbors and the group largely polices itself.
“The pet owners not only oversee and manage the location from a maintenance perspective, but also the handling of the pets,” he said.
In Brigantine, Blumenthal said she had been asked to identify a temporary location while money is being raised to reopen its dog park at the less intrusive location. Possibilities include a section of beach cordoned off with inexpensive beach fencing or an area by the hockey course.
The city also returned the dog-park fees it had collected before the closing. Once the new park is open, it will again solicit fees from users for upkeep.
“We think the dog park will be open in approximately a month, but that depends on how long it takes to secure materials,” she said.
At a minimum, Blumenthal said the new park at the Community Center would need a chain-link fence, a telephone line for electronic key cards and a water connection.
Ron Weiss, the Brigantine homeowner who with his wife, Sandy, fronted about $20,000 to open the old park at 42nd Street in 2008, has committed $10,000 in matching funds for the second iteration.
Despite a marathon council meeting last week that included nearly two hours of public discussion about the park, Weiss is optimistic about its future. He will serve on a committee planning the 7,500-square-foot park.
“We’re going to meet and figure out how a dog park can work for everyone,” he said.
The old park was a special place for the Weisses. Its entrances bore the names and portraits of the couple’s two deceased Siberian huskies, Natasha and Nikita.
“I did it to give back to the community and also to keep the memory of my huskies alive,” he said. “They weren’t dogs — they were like our kids. I never had children. They were all I had.”
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