The Straight Poop

Cheesman neighbors worry that their park is going to the dogs.

"When you turn that area of the park over to dogs, you are infringing on the rights of everyone else to use that area," adds James Rust, who lives in Park Towers with his wife. "I won't feel free to walk through there. It creates a stigma."

Comeau and the Rusts have been lobbying neighbors -- especially those living alongside the park, because their property values could be directly affected -- to start their own campaign and consider suing the city if an off-leash area is introduced at Cheesman. "This is brewing. Not just festering -- brewing," says Kathleen Rust. "I do think there are appropriate sites, and I'm not saying 'not in my back yard.' But it's evident that Cheesman doesn't meet the qualifications."

The parks department began identifying the criteria last year after it formed a roundtable to discuss off-leash areas. Every city council member was invited, along with representatives of DenFidos, PetSmart, animal control, parks safety and parks forestry, and the Denver Dumb Friends League. The group narrowed down the list of potential sites to nine parks, nixing Washington Park and City Park because of their high usage. It looked for parks that were underutilized, and created different rules for fenced and unfenced areas, considering distance from playgrounds, parking and athletic fields.

Some opponents of the proposed dog parks argue that the parks department shouldn't have set up a roundtable in the first place, since its advisory board -- whose members are appointed by the mayor and city council -- are supposed to collect citizen feedback and take it back to the department. But now Mejia will be getting two potentially dueling proposals. The pro-off-leash roundtable will turn in its recommendation after two more public hearings this month; the advisory board, which has already heard from many dog-park opponents, will make its own recommendation to Mejia at its April 10 meeting. The parks chief is supposed to issue his decision by June -- before the next mayor takes over.

"If there'd been a proper process, we wouldn't be here now," says Comeau.

Where they are is at a stalemate. Those opposed to dog parks accuse DenFidos of stacking the neighborhood meetings with non-residents; those in favor dismiss such complaints as anti-dog. And some neighbors would like to avoid the issue altogether; they feel it has polarized the community. Timothy Hepp, president of the East Cheesman Neighborhood Association, is guarded when he talks about off-leash parks. "The concept is very good and necessary," he says, "but I have concerns about whether an unbounded area at Cheesman is the solution."

Mayoral candidates, too, would rather stay away from the topic. When Ari Zavaras was asked a dog-park question at a debate last month, he navigated the issue carefully, giving the proposal tacit support -- after first joking that he should buy a fence company.

Much of the debate now centers on fences. Barnes-Gelt, an adamant non-animal person, supports a trial at enclosed areas; Councilwoman Kathleen MacKenzie, who represents the Ruby Hill area, suggests the same. Even Rogers and Jeff Uhrlaub, DenFidos's roundtable representative, would prefer that any dog parks be fenced. But the parks department doesn't want to rule anything out. "Englewood has five unfenced dog runs, and we want to experiment with all the options," says Kolwaite. "It's just a trial, so we're not sure fencing is appropriate until the areas are certain."

Katherine Allen, DenFidos District 10 representative and organizer of Cheesman's monthly poop patrol, says she's baffled by her neighbors' aversion to dog parks -- fenced or unfenced. "They don't want to look down on dogs, but looking down on drug dealers and sex acts is okay?" she asks. "Is someone going to come and pick up after the homeless and their cigarette butts?"

But the Rusts worry that a poop patrol and self-policing -- the enforcement model in every city with dog parks -- won't be enough to keep the situation in check. No public money is slated for the program, either; it's up to DenFidos to raise needed funds.

Rogers still hopes that Cheeseman residents can reach a compromise. "It's only a tenth of the park, not the whole thing, like some neighbors are saying," he says. "We're responsible dog owners, and pooping and mauling have nothing to do with being a legal off-leash area. Dogs poop whether they're on a leash or off of it."

Joanne Robb can tell you all about that. On this morning, she helped pick up eighty pounds of poop -- and one syringe.

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