Bone of contention

Off-leash dog parks are becoming popular. But not everyone is willing to share public land with canines.

Even though Tut can't grin - the delight on his face is obvious to Susan Schwarten. "To watch him run and play, it's just amazing. The only word you can use is sheer joy," says Ms. Schwarten of Ocean City, Md.

But for Tut, an 8-year-old basenji, and Schwarten's two other dogs, the delight of running in an off-leash area is a rare treat. There's no official off-leash area in Ocean City, and for three years, Schwarten's efforts to start one have been foiled by land deals gone bad. But she and her group, the Woodland Pond Dog Park Association, continue to scout local areas.

Designated off-leash areas - known as dog parks - are a growing trend around the country. Most are fenced-in areas of existing multiuse parks, where owners are able to let their pets roam freely and interact with other dogs, which veterinarians recommend.

Many dog parks are equipped with canine drinking fountains, swim areas, agility equipment, wash-down areas for cleaning muddy paws, waste-bag dispensers, and shelters. They range in size from a half-block to nearly 20 acres, and are often subdivided into large-dog and small-dog areas.

The decision to devote precious open park space to exercise areas for dogs, however, has become a bone of contention for dozens of communities across the country - frequently whipping up emotions to a level not often seen by community parks officials.

Carving out a section of the park for dog owners can occasionally mean reducing space for other park users. In Arlington, Va., animosity between dog owners and nearly 30 parents flared in recent months when the Arlington County Board moved an existing dog park (which was inadvertently located on an historical site) to another area of Fort Ethan Allen Park. The new off-leash area will be adjacent to a community center and near an open area often used by children.

"We were getting opposition right away," says Barbara Favola, chairman of the Arlington County Board. "We are trying to accommodate the reasonable people from each stakeholder group."

Concern that dogs and children will be sharing sidewalk space and park entrances, as well as conflicts over fencing and buffer zones, pushed the parents to organize a group called Parents Advocating Children's Turf (PACT).

"No study was done on how the playground is used or how many kids use it. We were being overlooked," says Alexandra Beall, spokesperson for PACT. "We just were not being heard."

On Dec. 11, Arlington County Board members voted to allow the dog park. But prior to that, Ms. Beall and her group met with the county architect and officials to establish separate entrances for the playground and the canine park.

Contention between dog owners and nearby neighbors isn't restricted to new parks. Ohlone Dog Park in Berkeley, Calif. - opened in 1983 and believed to be the oldest dog park in the US - has patrons and neighbors quarreling over noise, soil erosion, dog feces, parking issues, and dogs that remain unleashed outside the park's perimeter.

After months of disagreements, city officials instituted a six-month trial period, which started in September, that mandates early morning and evening quiet hours, requiring dogs that bark to be removed from the park.

"It's been a tough issue initially to deal with, because there was a lot of anger on both sides," says Virginia Aiello of the Berkeley Parks and Recreation Commission.

The city of Baltimore has seen controversy, too. Without authorization, dog owners had commandeered an area of Robert E. Lee Park, says Connie A. Brown, associate director for parks. "We had some major drama. We wanted to fix up the place a bit. Clean up the soil, let it breathe, but we had people climbing the fence, going around it. Right now we have it open because [that causes] less drama."

Despite such skirmishes, many dog parks work well and are flourishing.

Fort Woof, a five-acre dog park in Fort Worth, Texas, opened in April, and has become one of the city's most-used parks. "There hasn't been an hour a day that someone isn't there," says Randle Harwood of Parks and Community Services. "On the weekends, there are 100 to 150 people there."

One reason Fort Woof's development has gone smoothly is that it's located in Gateway Park, eliminating the residential disagreements seen in other cities. The city also had policies in place before a dog park was even proposed. Problems there have been few.

"We thought we'd have more problems with dogs socializing, but there's only been a couple of little incidents, and those got resolved. It's very self-policing," said Mr. Harwood.

With interest levels high, dozens of new dog parks are currently being developed across the country. On Friday, Broward County, Fla., is getting ready to open its first county dog park at a cost of $460,000. Located inside Markham Park, the new, three-acre off-leash area is loaded with amenities, including walking paths, wash-down areas, and water fountains.

"It's reinvigorating interest in parks for people who might not have gone," says Bob Harbin, Broward County's parks and recreation director.

The off-leash trend is also sparking entrepreneurship.

In September, Jill Breen opened Adventure Hounds, Colorado's first private dog park, 25 minutes north of Denver. A half-day excursion for up to eight dogs costs $30 apiece. They are picked up and driven to the off-leash park, where they can romp in a huge sandbox and exercise on agility equipment. Owners like the fact that their pets can socialize in a small group.

"When you go to a public park, you don't know what will happen," says Ms. Breen. "I've been [where] there are aggressive dogs and ones that aren't spayed or neutered, and you don't know if the dogs have had their shots." A private park eliminates those worries for dog owners, she says.

For those who want to establish a public off-leash area, countering objections can be daunting, says Nancy Peterson of the Humane Society of the United States. "Dog owners feel, and rightly so, they are taxpayers also, and while some people use the park for jogging or soccer or tennis, dog owners' interest is having an area where their dogs can run freely. If you don't like dogs, now you can avoid them because they'll have an area that's just for them."

When launching Fort Woof, Harwood says the challenge was justifying a dog park when infrastructure at other parks needed attention, and money was short. In hindsight, though, he realized that Fort Woof is not a park for dogs, but rather a park for people with dogs.

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