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Jeanne Robb has no problem taking crap if it gets her elected.
Early one morning, the District 10 Denver City Council candidate patrols Cheesman Park with her plastic bag and gloves. Yes, Robb has a dog, but she's not picking up after Lily; the mixed mutt isn't even at Cheesman. No, on this morning she's volunteering with DenFidos's monthly patrol, working the perimeter of the eighty-acre park, gathering the straight poop on the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation's proposal to introduce off-leash dog parks.
Although a few families gather at the playground, the park is primarily populated by joggers and dogs -- everything from a small Lhasa apso to a harlequin Great Dane, with at least fifteen running off the leash. The owners are taking their chances, hoping the day's misty weather will keep animal-control officers -- and their leash-law tickets, which can run as high as $300 -- out of the park.
Although Denver ordinances demand that all dogs be leashed in public areas, it's not unusual to see canines running free in Cheesman -- and most other city parks, for that matter. "I live right across the street, and there has been this group of renegade dog runners in Cheesman for years," says Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt. "Clearly, there is a crying desire on the part of dog owners to have someplace where they can let their dogs run loose."
They just may get that place if parks manager James Mejia signs off on a one-year pilot program that would allow dogs off-leash in nine potential spots: Berkeley Park, Barnum Park, Kennedy Soccer, Veterans Park, Ruby Hill Park, Fuller Park, Northside Park, Green Valley Ranch East and Cheesman Park. Two would be fenced areas; the others would rely on natural barriers, such as trees and hills, to keep the pets in line.
Neighborhood groups around Ruby Hill, where the proposed off-leash site is on the sledding hill, and near Veterans, where the off-leash area would comprise half of the park's approximately sixteen acres, are vocal in their opposition to the proposal. But so far, Cheesman is the real hot spot.
"It's a hugely emotional issue, because Cheesman Park is a jewel in our park system and people think of it as their back yard, whether they live on it or, like me, ten blocks away," explains Robb, who sits on the parks department's advisory board.
After the original Fidos chapter inspired Boulder to open the first of three dog-friendly spaces here in 1999, Denver dog lovers formed DenFidos and embarked on a letter and e-mail campaign urging city officials to join such places as New York City (which has an off-leash area every twenty blocks) and Eugene, Oregon, in creating spaces where animals can socialize freely. "There is a sense of Denver being a little outdated compared to other metropolitan cities," admits Melissa Kolwaite, spokeswoman for the parks department. And when the department started working on its Game Plan -- surveying citizens in order to come up with a long-term wish list for Denver parks -- DenFidos members asked that off-leash areas for dogs be included ("Park Place," August 15, 2002). The results of that survey were compiled in 2001, and the department found enough support for dog parks to seriously pursue the concept.
"We think off-leash dog parks allow all users of the park to enjoy them in a more safe, more sanitary and ultimately more enjoyable manner," says Tad Rogers, DenFidos acting president. "They reduce conflicts by isolating dogs from people who don't want to run into dogs and isolating poop from those who don't want to step in it. Plus, the increased peer pressure and scrutiny ensures it gets cleaned up."
The off-leash concept isn't entirely new to Denver. For the past three years, dogs have been able to run in a fenced park on Jason Street behind the municipal animal shelter. The area, managed by the Denver Division of Animal Control, isn't one of Denver's most beautiful spaces -- anti-off-leash advocates are fond of invoking its image in their defense, and even Barnes-Gelt has called it "that disgusting thing on Jason Street" -- but it's still popular.
"We are very pleased with this one," says Doug Kelley, director of animal control. "We've had no bites out there, and very rarely are there any contentious situations. The owners really police themselves. Every once in a while, a dog will jump up on the fence and say hi, but it's very rare."
But Jason Street is not Cheesman Park. Far from it. The only truly urban park in the proposal, Cheesman is ringed by historic homes and high-rises that are occupied by very active, outspoken residents. David Comeau, for example, vehemently opposes the proposed 7.5-acre, unfenced off-leash area in the north meadow east of Park Towers; he fears maulings, crowding, parking problems and deterioration of the park, along with health concerns from increased excrement.
"No one would choose to look down on it," says Comeau, chairman of Park Towers' homeowners' association. "If things run amok, they can leave. We're stuck with the mess. I mean, how often are the barrels going to be dumped? They don't do it now."
"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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