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Commission hears comments on dog park

Date: 2/14/2012

Feb. 15, 2012

By Debbie Gardner

WESTFIELD — Proponents were told they might be barking up the wrong tree last Thursday during a public hearing on a proposed dog park at the Paper Mill Playground.

Local residents and Westfield Little League manager and coaches expressed concerns regarding parking, traffic, noise, loss of key play areas and potential city liability in the case of dog attacks during the meeting, which was hosted by the Parks and Recreation Commission.

Commission Chair Kenneth Magrian moderated the hearing, which was attended by 26 people. He explained that the commission was only collecting information at the hearing, and would neither be discussing nor acting on the dog park proposal that evening.

Westfield Dog Bark Friends spokesperson Marilyn Sandegs gave a description of the benefits of a dog park for owners and pets — leash-free exercise and an opportunity to socialize with other dogs — as well as a brief overview of the proposed plan. She said the proposed park would re-purpose an underused tennis court at the playground as well as strip of open land stretching between the courts and the lower baseball diamond.

Sandegs added that when the group had, at the suggestion of the Parks and Recreation Department, began considering the parcel for a dog park, the group was unaware Westfield Little League maintained a gravel batting cage on the site.

"We would be very happy to move it," Sandegs said.

John Wheeler, president of the Westfield Little League, said he was surprised by the size of the proposed park on the aerial map used in the presentation.

"I didn't believe it was going to be that big," Wheeler said, adding that he was concerned about the potential effect of home runs, which often land in the tennis court area during games, on people and dogs attending the proposed park. He was also dismayed that the park would absorb the space allotted for a batting cage, which he indicated the league worked hard to have constructed at the park.

"If they eliminate the batting cage [at that location] there's no other place to put it," he said. "There will be no place [for batters] to warm up before games."

Wheeler also questioned the Friends assurance that the city would not be liable if there were any incidents between dogs and children during games or other activities at the recreation area.

"I think [Westfield Dog Bark Friends] are wrong about this," he said. "If this is a city park, then [the city] is responsible if they allow [a dog park to be built]."

Sandegs assured the audience that the Friends would not be operating a dog park "without insurance," and cited Massachusetts General Law Chapter 140, section 155, — which states that a dog owner, or in the case of a minor, the dog owners' parents, are liable for any damages from a dog bite or attack — as proof that the city would not be liable for any dog-related incidents at the park.

Local resident Donna Vella questioned whether Paper Mill Playground would be adequate to accommodate potential dog park users along with baseball teams and others visiting the park, given the small size of the parking lot and the lack of accessible parking along Paper Mill Road.

She said she was concerned for the "safety of the children and others who might need to be there" if the dog park became popular. She also expressed concern about the effects of barking and other noise from early-morning dog park visitors on park abutters.

"I really think that if you do a little more homework, there might be a better place," she said.

Ward 6 City Councilor, Christopher Crean, who spoke as a resident, said he had brought up the subject of a dog park at the Paper Mill Playground to the Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) of abutting Paper Mill Elementary School and was "surprised by the number of concerns" expressed, including traffic and public safety.

Noting the number of restrictions already placed on activities on school ground, from concerns about food allergies and chemical or environmental exposures, he said he wasn't "completely convinced we're not putting another hazard up there" by allowing the dog park in proximity to the school.

Westfield Dog Bark Friends founder Edward Phillips, who started the push for a dog park two years ago, said his non-profit group had explored placing the park in numerous open spaces around the city, including Stanley Park, Whitney Playground and the 39-acre Arm Brook property, which is currently not open to public use.

Phillips said in each case the location was rejected, until the Parks and Recreation Department suggested the tennis court area at Papermill that's now under consideration.

One stipulation for any dog park site was access to water for the dogs, Phillips added.

"I don't see any reason why a city this size can't put a dog park somewhere," he said, adding that with more than 3,000 dogs licensed in the city, he'd like to see some of that revenue used "for the dogs."

Sandegs said her group had already been fund-raising for project and any dog park would be maintained and policed by members of the Friends.

Dog park proponent Joan Corell, who said she did not personally own a dog but enjoyed watching them socialize in dog parks she had visited in New York City, noted that "most cities consider [a dog park] an asset," and that the inclusion would aid Westfield's push to upgrade itself as a city.

At-Large City Councilor and the Parks and Recreation Department liaison James Adams, who said he had financially supported the Friends, pointed out that his experience at Paper Mill Playground indicated the dog park would be a tight fit with the ball fields. However, he said proponents' arguments for a dog park in Westfield had merit.

"I'll go on record that we need a dog park, but this might not be the best spot," Adams said.

Crean said as a city councilor he would be "happy to work with the commission and [the Friends] to find funding" and a potential site.

"This has never been brought up before the Council and I'd be happy to go down that road with you," Crean said.

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