MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Township Committee plans to go out to bid in October on a new dog park for Rio Grande, backed by open space funding from Cape May County.
At the most recent meeting of the township Board of Commissioners, members weighed a proposal outlining potential rules for the park. The system under consideration would require owners to demonstrate that their dogs are licensed and have had their shots, and to sign a waiver of liability, among other restrictions.
One member said he understood that restrictions are needed, but he suggested the current proposal might go too far, at one point describing it as draconian.
“I appreciate all the work that went into this, but to me, it’s over the top, to be honest with you,” said Committeeman Tim Donohue at the Sept. 3 workshop meeting.
The dog park is set to be created as part of Rio Grande Park, also to include basketball courts, multi-use courts for tennis and pickleball, a bike repair station, gazebo, a new building and open lawn areas. The location is just north of Route 47 on the long bike path on Railroad Avenue.
There’s a basketball court, a baseball diamond and playground equipment at the 2½-acre site now, but this project will include a significant expansion.
In the application to the county Open Space board filed last year, township officials cited the proposed park’s proximity to other amenities and the bike path but added “the recreational facilities of the Rio Grande Park will also be a tremendous draw all on their own.”
Officials say the plan has drawn strong support from the community.
For the dog park, owners will be required to pay a $30 yearly fee and to sign a document showing their acceptance of the rules.
Committeeman Jeffrey DeVico wanted more details on how that would be enforced, including whether the township wanted someone stationed full time at the dog park.
William Candell, the township’s animal control officer, told DeVico he had recently visited the beachfront dog park in Wildwood and planned to visit Cape May’s dog park.
“I observed Wildwood a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t see any employees there and everything seemed copacetic while I was there. Maybe it’s the imposing form of that giant fire hydrant,” he said.
The preliminary version of the rules and liability waver was created by the township’s Animal Advisory Board, with input from Candell. Donohue said he understands the need for caution but suggested the township does not want to go too far.
“Right now, every day there are people that walk their dogs at the Goshen sports complex,” he said. “We don’t know that they’re licensed. We don’t know that they’ve had their shots. We don’t know anything about them.”
He said economic development was part of the reason for the county’s support of the plan. He said the park should be welcoming to visitors, including the many tourists staying in the campgrounds throughout the township each summer.
“They’re not going to come to town hall with their proof of insurance to take their dog for a walk,” he said.
Problems could arise with dogs anywhere in the township, something Mayor Mike Clark indicates he knows all too well. His dog was in his yard when it was attacked and killed by a neighbor’s dog some years ago, he said.
Much of that could take place before people even arrive in Middle Township, Business Administrator Elizabeth Terenik said at the meeting.
“We need to get this all online. People should be able to pay it, submit it, everything should be able to happen online. That’s where we have to get ourselves up to the 21st century with this stuff,” she said.
Township attorney Frank Corrado said the township should not be any less strict than the proposed rules.
“It is imperative that the township protect itself against dog bite liability,” he said, describing it as a bomb waiting to explode. He said the rules would need the approval of the Joint Insurance Fund, through which the township holds its liability insurance.
“I understand the world we live in,” Donohue said. “It’s extremely litigious and all that. And I understand that the JIF has its job.” But he said he did not want people to be disappointed when they tried to use the dog park, joking that only three people would be eligible to bring their dogs.
Candell said he wanted to err on the side of caution. He suggested the township needed to approve a tough ordinance for the dog park. But he said if he wanted to use the park for his dogs, he’d be willing to jump through all of the hoops.
“Well you are, because you’re a caring and responsible dog owner,” Donohue said.
“Well that’s kind of the point,” said Corrado.
“I understand, that’s the only kind of dog owner we want there,” Donohue said.