The city of South Burlington’s recent e-newsletter contains a rumination on unleashed dogs by recreation and parks director Holly Rees. In addition to sharing insights into her own personal situation and life philosophies, she again chided pet owners for walking their dogs off leash in our parks. This, after recently suggesting that dog owners tie bags of poop to their pets’ collars as they walk them on leashes. Seriously?

It’s a shame that no portion of her narrative acknowledged that for a few years now, South Burlington hasn’t had an adequate and permanent dedicated space for dogs. And, that she presented no historical context to understand that deficiency and its impact on the community. And, how and when city officials plan to address the issue.

Colchester, Essex, Jericho, Williston and Shelburne towns all offer their tax-paying residents and visitors opportunities to walk their dogs unleashed. But not our city. Yet our taxes (and dog registration fees) are on par with, or higher than, neighboring towns, so why the discrepancy? Their dogs can’t be better behaved, or more responsive to their owners’ voice control than South Burlington’s dogs. Given the wealth of wooded trails and open land in our city, it’s inconceivable that city leaders can’t understand and successfully address the need for acceptable space for unleashed dogs to socialize, exercise and learn from us, others, and their peers. It can’t be that difficult to dedicate a suitable space for dogs to be off-leash, especially when a large portion of our population consistently identifies this as a significant civic asset. South Burlington likes to portray itself as a city that promotes community, health and wellbeing, yet we are squandering valuable opportunities to experiment with ways to make these ideals a reality and enhance the shared experience of our city. We have the resources to do this.

The bottom line is, South Burlington dog owners shouldn’t be relegated to a small fenced-in corner, which is likely the lynch-pin of any current plan under consideration by City Hall. That tack effectively only produces a large dog run or kennel. And, we shouldn’t have to drive to other towns to allow our dogs to run freely alongside us. Dogs, like people, need stimulation of the senses and especially respond to a changing landscape of natural features like meadows, trails, woods, streams, etc. Given the abundance of parks and wooded/open spaces within city limits (eleven at present), at least one entire parcel should be designated as ‘leash optional.’ That still leaves at least 10 other spaces available to those residents who wish to enjoy outdoor activity where dogs are on leashes.

Either Wheeler Nature Park or the undeveloped Underwood Property are great potential candidates for this option. Both are denoted as Natural Areas. Underwood, due to the failure of the city to develop a single element of the Master Plan Concept delivered by the SE Group more than five years ago might be the logical choice. In Vermont, the purpose of a natural area is ostensibly “… for the use of present and future residents of the State”. Underwood is relatively unusable right now, and the city has not communicated any actionable plan to make it more available. Either location would be a bold move and would require significant political will to achieve. Both locations will have their detractors and defenders. To ease the jitters that might result from this course, this option could be viewed as a “trial of limited duration” while its impact is measured. Right now, we have nowhere of consequence to enjoy, and our choices are being eroded at every turn. Let’s think big, and outside the proverbial box. We really have nothing to lose.

Talk is cheap. And there’s a lot of talk about the ‘new’ dedicated dog park proposed for Wheeler. But the talk stops when residents ask Rees, other city leaders, or the Friends of South Burlington Dog Parks for specific information on any aspect of the project. In September, when I finally got a response to questions I had been asking since July, I was told “... we have been waiting for an update from city officials about when construction will begin.”

Looks like we’re all still waiting for these unidentified officials to provide any information about the exact siting, size/dimensions, amenities for all users, landscaping elements, cost, or proposed hours or regulations of the new park. Perhaps the city’s dog park committee can present the plan to the public, before the digging begins.

Keeping all stakeholders informed is a priority of any responsible leader or manager.

The plan, if it exists, and all relevant information should be readily accessible on a dedicated page on the city’s website. I have yet to speak with anyone in our community who knows exactly what the plan for the ‘new’ dog park is. There’s a large sign near the proposed site, but it contains few details on the particulars proposed. If the information exists, disseminate it. When calls and emails to city offices go unreturned, questions go unanswered. Only frustration, resentment and the feeling of disenfranchisement can grow from there. If a preliminary plan is indeed completed and construction is only awaiting approval from city officials, please stop dithering and procrastinating. Share it with residents and invite input one last time. If a plan isn’t completed, let us know that, and solicit a new round of public participation in the process ASAP. After that, get something approved by the community in an open forum virtual meeting. Only then, call in the ‘dozers.

Here’s a bit of history for anyone new to South Burlington: We had an amazing resource on Patchen Road that was large, leash-free and offered varied natural features. It was beloved by dog owners for many years with very few reported incidents of inappropriate canine conduct. Then, in the early 2000s, to appease UVM, our former city manager urged the planning commission to approve spot zoning (a practice generally regarded by planners as an invalid exercise of authority) for the parcel. This allowed a change in use for only that one property and solely for its owner’s benefit. No dogs have been allowed since, despite that lot remaining empty and unused for at least the past 10-plus years ... right up until today.

It then took a couple of years to get a new, designated dog park on Kirby Road. A committee worked long and hard to realize a plan it first presented to the community before getting official approval. The end product, a 2-acre dedicated and secure facility was used and enjoyed by many. But no one in city hall at the time shared the knowledge that federal regulations would prohibit a dog park at that location, and it would have to be shut down. So, that park was abruptly closed in 2017 and space was allocated at Jaycee Park.

That proved extremely popular to most, but unsatisfactory to at least one neighbor who told the city council he was made “miserable, distraught and agitated” by dogs barking. The city never solicited other neighbors’ opinions, and despite public outcry and a petition signed by more than 200 people who cited the need for that dedicated dog park, the council closed it after a few months.

One council member said she couldn’t see a solution other than closing the park. Apparently no thought of imposing limits on the hours of use was considered. Since March 2018, we’ve had no appropriate, safe, permanent space to let dogs run.

In the early years of Wheeler Park when it had a different name, dogs frequently accompanied their owners off-leash. I walked those trails for years, until a woman from the Village at Dorset Park felt “emotionally threatened” by a dog unknown to her and untethered to its owner. I’m unfamiliar with the details of her traumatic encounter, but I do know that she called city hall and the same city manager immediately decided: Must. Leash. Dogs. No public input was sought or deemed necessary.

Signs were up announcing this new policy within days, the woman was spared future horrific encounters, and the manager was spared having to actually examine an issue and invite feedback from residents and park users to arrive at a reasonable and balanced solution. Win - Win. Oh, except for the dogs — they lost.

Given that history, and that the City has consistently abdicated or ignored its responsibility to its citizens to effectively deal with this situation for at least two decades, it’s understandable that residents should devise their own paths to self-help and provide their dogs with what they need: opportunities to run and play, unfettered, while under voice control of their owners. We don’t need to throw money at the problem, although between animal licensing fees and recreation impact fees that accrue each year, we probably could. We just need to approach it with imagination, practicality, and most importantly, with an eye toward fairness.

Since Rees shared her four mantras, I’ll offer mine to anyone who might benefit from them:

Public servants serve the public

All, the public, all the time. Not just one lady in the Village at Dorset Park, or one man on Shepard Lane, or a handful of residents around the city. The public is owed a just and open resolution of grievances, and not a knee-jerk reaction quickly arrived at behind closed doors and designed to quiet a few squeaky wheels. As a ‘servant’ to the public, use tools such as referendums and other devices of empowerment to concretize popular will and achieve consensus on issues that affect your constituency. Surely, someone in city hall can do this, or knows of someone who can. Most importantly, remember that you work for us.

Treat the public with respect

Be transparent at all costs and treat South Burlington residents like adult humans, not recalcitrant teens who can be rebuked, scolded or berated by a putative authority. Invite us to the table. Don’t talk down to us or hide information from us or manipulate data for us. Using fear tactics or bullying to further divisions in the community is a bad idea. We need to work together. Heed us, and hear from us, rather than talking at us. And please, address us as you would your supervisors in the office. In my experience, when people are treated like adults, they respond accordingly. When they’re publicly shamed, they act shamefully.

Be creative in problem-solving

Don’t take shortcuts or look for the easy way out. Consider your job and why you’re there, whom you serve, and how best to meet the needs of the many rather than the vocal and unhappy few. Research the issues and get inspiration from examples of smart solutions. For instance, Niquette State Park faced a similar issue with visiting dogs several years ago. But instead of an expeditious “all or nothing” reactive response, they reached a thoughtful compromise: some of its trails were designated suitable for leashed dogs, and others were identified as leash optional.

In the case of Wheeler, this idea also merits exploration. This approach would considerably minimize contact between skittish humans and exuberant canines. It could be achieved with a much smaller outlay of tax dollars paid for consultants, vendors, materials, and labor. And it would be equitable.

Innovate! We all know what doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different outcome each time characterizes.

If you’re going to do a job, do it right

Refer to the first three, above, if you get stuck. If you need help, ask for it. Be thorough and inclusive. Don’t take action that affects more than one person without achieving consensus among the group. And please don’t use excuses like budgets, liability, or pandemics should you prove unequal to the tasks at hand. Think first, then listen, learn, and lead. Or step aside and hand off the baton.

Unlike the Ten Commandments, municipal regulations can change and reflect evolving shifts in attitudes and values among the greater community. We don’t need to follow an old script just because “that’s the way it’s always been done.”

We can use this occasion to help strengthen, improve, and celebrate our community and connections among residents and city officials. Hopefully, in the new year, we will be provided with that opportunity and the services and amenities we deserve and subsidize.

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