MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — As Township Committee works on rules for a planned dog park in the Rio Grande section of the township, animal control officer William Candell said park members should expect to see a lot of him.
Candell and Jen Modica, the chairwoman of the Middle Township Animal Advisory Board, presented recommendations to Township Committee at the Oct. 15 workshop meeting. Plans call for a new leash-free enclosed dog park as part of upcoming renovations to Rio Grande Park, to be funded with Cape May County Open Space money. Improvements to the 2½-acre park on Railroad Avenue just north of Route 47 include space for tennis and pickleball, a gazebo and more, including a dog park with separate sections for large and small dogs.
The park operation will be left to Middle Township. In recent meetings, the township governing body has sought input from Candell and the Animal Advisory Board for establishing the rules for its first dog park.
Stationing someone at the park during its hours of operation would cost too much, but Candell said he’d want participants to see regular visits to the park.
“I know it will be taxing for the police, but if there is time for them to just swing through they could stop and say hello,” Candell said. “It’s a great opportunity for community policing. I know the chief’s all about that.”
Township Business Administrator Elizabeth Terenick asked Candell if he would have time to add dog park visits to his schedule.
“It would go into my routine. There’s rarely a day I can’t get a few minutes to pop in there,” he said. Owners would soon understand there are eyes on the park, he said.
Terenick added that close circuit cameras would also have the park in focus, a step not taken in the dog parks in other communities.
“We built cameras into this project,” she said. “We realized that with hockey they were not included and we had to spend $4,000 after the fact. It’s part of the grant.”
The cameras would not just be for the dog park, but would also cover other areas of the park.
Candell has researched how other communities have handled the issue, including Ocean City, Cape May, North Wildwood and Wildwood, each of which has a dog park where dogs mingle off leash. In Ocean City, participants pay a fee and are issued a pass card that unlocks an electric gate to allow access to the park, divided into sections for large dogs and small dogs with a separate run. That park costs $30 a year for county residents, $40 for those outside the county, with a $10 pass for weekly visitors.
Cape May's is $20 a year, with an option for $10 a week, but the gate is not locked. For North Wildwood, the fee is $10, he said. Wildwood does not have any mention of the dog park in its ordinances, he said.
Incidents are rare, he said. In Cape May, there are about two incidents of a dog biting another dog a year.
“There’s been nothing that resulted in anything severe,” he said. “The owners are right there to yank them out and get them dealt with.”
He accidently drew a laugh at the otherwise dry workshop discussion.
“There’s an average of one human bite per year. Not humans biting humans, that is. Of dogs biting humans,” he said. In most cases, these occurred when an owner intervened in a dog fight and often came from the person’s own dog.
Committeeman Jeffrey DeVico remained concerned about enforcement.
“I’m OK with the dog park. I’m not worried about it. When you talk about rules and regulations and enforcement, that’s what I’m worried about,” he said. Most homes in the township have dogs, he said, suggesting the honest people will pay the membership fee, but without someone on site, enforcement will be difficult.
“I want the dog park. I’ve got a big dog that I want to bring because he needs to be socialized,” he said.
Candell responded that the people will pay and will let the township know those that haven’t paid. He said self-enforcement has been remarkably effective at the other dog parks.
Another topic raised in the discussion was a proposal to require dogs be covered by insurance, either through an owner’s homeowner policy or a renter’s policy.
Modica said the Animal Advisory Board recommends requiring insurance.
“We’re here to protect the township, not the homeowners per se, I’m sorry to say. So we have to transfer the risk to the homeowners who want to use the park,” she said.
Township Committee is still working out details of the operation of the park. There seems to be a consensus that it will be open to licensed dogs, whether that license is from the township or elsewhere. That will mean the dogs have been immunized against rabies and other diseases.
The county awarded $1.2 million for work on the park. Terenick expects to award a contract for the work in November, with work to begin in the spring.