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This Week

Our Observation

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For the past two years, the city of Winter Park has spent an inordinate amount of time and resources on all things canine. This myopic obsession is focused on the off-leash dogs at Fleet Peoples Park and has largely been driven by a few on the City Commission and others on the Parks and Recreation Board who desire to see this park converted to general and open park space.

We argue that the city has open park space, and including an off-leash dog park in its parks system is a good thing for this and any community. Our diversity in park space is what makes the city so great. Whether we like (or use) them or not, we pay for the maintenance and upkeep of: pools for swimmers, fields for sports, a football/track stadium, a state-of-the-art disabled-accessible playground, lake side gardens for nature lovers, boat ramps for boaters, sandy beaches for sun-bathers and docks for fishermen. We have boardwalks, fountains, wetlands, fitness trails, and we even have a butterfly garden for lepidopterists. You seldom hear from the non-golfing majority that the Winter Park Country Club should be opened to the public as parkland. So why all this fuss over the dog park?

It is difficult to know for sure. Some point to health and human safety concerns, but the data seems to show these concerns may be overstated. A 2009 Lake Management Issues report of the Winter Park Public Works Department Lakes Division shows that bacteriological monitoring of the Fleet Peeples Park Beach area has improved from a 231 average colony count in 2005 to an average count of only 154 in 2008. Standards require a count of less than 200 for safe swimming conditions. While Winter Park works hard to improve Lake Baldwin’s water quality, fertilizer and pesticide runoff from the yards of Baldwin Park counteracts its efforts. Any question on overall water concerns can hardly be attributed solely to the dogs.

Or there is the fear-based argument against the bark park over concerns with dog attacks and rabies outbreaks. A review of police records for the past five years does show six incidents of a dog biting a human. The reports generally indicated the victim did not need medical attention and rather than pressing charges, felt the dog’s actions were more reflexive than aggressive. In no case were a dog’s vaccinations found to be out of date or has there ever been a case of rabies reported.

It’s expensive? The city has made the correct and fiscally responsible policy decision to charge a fee for the heavy use and specialized maintenance required by single-use recreational facilities such as the Azalea Lane Tennis Center, Winter Park Country Club golf course or the chain of lakes. It is difficult to make that argument about Fleet Peoples Park, whose $18,000 budget and maintenance requirements are inline or less than many of our other feeless parks.

First of all, Fleet Peoples Park is not a single-use park. In fact, the city just authorized the spending of an Florida Department of Transportation grant on the construction of a multi-use trail project for the park and describes the park as “a beautiful shady park that covers 23.16 acres on Lake Baldwin … offers two reservable pavilions, a boat ramp for boats with no gas engines, picnic tables and restrooms.” Only a portion of the park is set aside where dogs may run off leash during specific posted hours.

On Oct. 11, the City Commission, in a 3-2 vote, enacted a fee schedule that had been originally considered more than a year ago, charging dog owners $75 per year ($50 annually for a second dog) to let their dog use the park off leash, as well as mandating proof of up-to-date rabies shots for the dogs. A $5 day pass will be an option to those users who anticipate using the park less than 15 times per year. An ordinance imposing fines for violators may be instituted later this year. Beginning Dec. 1, these new day passes or annual dog tags will need to be on your dog’s collar.

Single-use parks offer the ability to pay and play onsite. This will not be an option for the dog park usage fee. The Commission voted 3-2 against a proposed amendment that would have implemented an on-site system of payment. A variety of payment options were recommended for staff to evaluate, ranging from low-tech ‘honors systems’ used by many state parks, to high-tech credit card point-of-sale systems used for short-term parking across the country. But as one commissioner clarified when casting a vote against such a system, “I don’t know how it can be implemented.” But without it, dog owners must meander the city to one of four proposed locations that will offer the dog tags and day passes for sale. The proposed locations, all with varying operating hours and half of them closed on the weekends, include Rachel D. Murrah Civic Center, Country Club Pro Shop, Parks Administration Building and Azalea Lane Tennis Center. What are dog owners supposed to do? Violate one law by leaving Skippy in a parked car on a hot summer day while they wait in line at the golf pro shop to buy a day pass for a cross-town dog park? Does this make any sense?

For most other area city/county park systems, the answer is no. Of 13 area dog parks throughout Central Florida, none are listed on DogParksUSA.com as charging a fee. Most area dog parks, including Winter Springs, do not charge a fee for dog park usage. When considering the vote, the Commission was presented a recently updated “Dog Park Fees Research Chart”. This schedule outlined the survey results of nine “fee” charging dog parks from around the country. One of those parks, Dogwood Park, is a private for-profit corporation offering obedience classes and bathing services in addition to an off-leash play area for dogs. Of the remaining eight in the sample group, 50 percent of them are located in Illinois, and only one in Florida. From the representative eight, the average fee imposed upon users is about $44 annually for the first dog and $11 for additional dogs. The newly approved Fleet Peoples dog-user fees seem exorbitant, even by Illinois standards. At least Satellite Beach, which charges $120 for its annual pass, has made the wise decision of staffing the park and providing onsite registration, payment and supervision.

In summary, and with indifference to the dogs, this usage fee scheme is wrong. Fleet Peeples is a city park, which means we already pay, through our taxes, for the cost of such things as public schools, roadways, public safety and the complete parks and recreation system. Taxes are levied without reference or preference to the specific benefits received. That means if you don’t play golf, you still paid dearly for it through a past bond offering.

Secondly, the imposition of user fees may violate the original 1974 State Parks Land Grant where the city agreed to maintain and operate the park at “its own expense” and offer it to the general public. This action could open Winter Park up to yet another lawsuit as the city generates income from non-citizen users for expenses already taxed and paid for by the citizens of Winter Park.

In terms of human safety concerns, state and county laws already require dog owners to vaccinate their dogs. The imposition of a new fee is not the appropriate mechanism for enforcing existing laws. Dog owners found in violation of these laws can be cited rather than imposing a fee upon all dog owners in hopes of weeding out the rare scofflaw. A simple stipulation to use of the dog park by requiring dogs to wear their rabies tag seems to be the more cost effective solution to the human safety issue.

If the Commission is intent on charging a fee, then it should be reasonable and commiserate with the level of services being provided. At this point, the plan does not include any onsite concession, registration or supervision. Lacking that, the adopted fees should be reduced to levels inline with the averages found in the updated fees research chart. The fee schedule should be amended to allow for special exceptions or reductions for students, seniors, disabled and veterans. These are the folks who are most dependent on — and whose lives are most enriched — by pet companionship. Lastly, an onsite payment system should be adopted. Asking our tax-paying citizens to tromp around the city in search of an open dog-tag kiosk is simply unreasonable.

We hope that after fixing this erred fees schedule that this fascination with all things canine is finally over. Puppy love or not, we need to get on with running a city and the more important issues such as fixing the ticking time bomb that is our city’s pension liabilities.