Thursday, June 02, 2005

Park Closed - No kids (or dogs) allowed

For the past few months, the dog owners and the non-dog owners on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. have been engaged in a lively debate about use of the city’s public parks. The issue came to a head last night at a community meeting to discuss the future of Kingman Field, one of the local open spaces operated by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR).

The meeting was hosted by the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) and attended by city councilmember Sharon Ambrose as well as representatives from DPR, District Police and the community.

The central issue brought forward, as the result of numerous complaints by a small number (4 individuals attended the meeting from this camp) of neighborhood residents opposed to dog owners using the park is a city law that requires all dogs to be on a four foot or shorter leash and under the control of their owner at all times when on public property. The anti-dog group claimed that dogs were fighting, chasing people around the park, scaring neighborhood children from the park, and causing a public health ‘crisis.’

The dog owners (more than 40 attended) point to the sharp reduction in neighborhood crime and drug dealing (especially on the basketball courts neighboring the park), dog-owner efforts to pick up trash and otherwise clean the park, the fact a number of neighborhood children routinely play with the dogs, as well as their rights as citizens to utilize the park as the reasons to allow dog owners to continue using the park unharassed.

Here is a recap of the meeting…. The anti-dog group quickly moved off the dog issue, claiming they were really concerned the overuse of the park by multiple organized events (primarily youth soccer, softball, and football teams, as well as the neighboring school) was destroying the park.

DPR responded by saying that (I’m paraphrasing here): DC parks have a policy that only permitted leagues are able to use the space. Any organized groups - including schools - will be removed from the park for engaging in unpermitted activities.

The DPR officer then provided the number so that local residents could report children illegally playing in the park (202-441-2605, if you’d like to report any children playing illegally).

When the dog owners floated an idea for a compromise (basically a plea to get the 4 neighborhood anti-dog people to stop calling DNR and the police every time one of them set foot in the park) that would limit the use of the park by dog owners to specific times of the day when youth activities were not taking place, DPR, despite only having 11 officers to patrol the city’s 77 parks under its jurisdiction, stated that they had no choice but to continue increased patrols of Kingman Field and stringent enforcement the city’s leash law.

As a representative from DPR said: "DPR is responsible for preserving the park for the community -- but we will not necessarily abide by a community solution because it may not meet the needs of the community."

The attitude of Counsel Member Ambrose was equally against a community supported compromise. The Counsel Member repeatedly said that there had been legislation designed to create dog parks/runs introduced in the city counsel. However, until it was passed the law must be enforced and that there could be no compromise that permitted dogs off their leash.

Counsel Member Ambrose is right – we do need to change the DC leash law. And, it would have been refreshing had she committed to doing so, but no such commitment was made (only a promise that she’d look at the proposal and some vague comments that the final solution that emerges from the Counsel “whenever it passes” may not look anything like the current proposal). However, the bigger issue is that the City of Washington has better things to spend its resources on than the enforcement of leash laws in a fenced park at times when no children – or only children playing with dogs – are present.

Dog owners are members of the community and that the complaints (many of which were completely unfounded) of a vocal minority should not outweigh the legitimate rights of dog owners (and children) to use public spaces unharassed.

Disclosure: I own two miniature dachshunds, Oscar & Felix, and am a regular patron of Kingman Field. I was also very disappointed that neither dog made the collage of photos that the anti-dog group presented as evidence of dogs “terrorizing children” and being a nuisance in the park.


At 12:01 PM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

Ahhh, the intelligence that is DC government. "We know what's best. So shut up."

We have some of the highest local income taxes in the nation, and this is what it buys us. Oh, that and failing public schools.

But as long as we keep our parks free of children and dogs and give them back to the drug dealers and vagrants, we'll be fine.

At 2:58 PM, Blogger Joe Weedon said...

Actually, the city has come a long way from the "so shut up days."

I think the DPR response was more: "We'll listen to you as long as what you say is what we want you to say. If it's not, we're going to do what we want to do anyway because we know what you really want and you don't."

Major step forward for the city.

At 3:31 PM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

Ahhh, yes. The "We're willing to listen if you're willing to agree with us first" approach.


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