Dog owners and lovers in Washington, D.C., are getting another chance to have their say on controversial regulations for off-leash dog parks, but some are anxious about whether it will do any good.
The proposed regulations were widely criticized when the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation released them in March, sparking accusations that the DPR kept the community out of the loop. Now, in an effort to please residents and the City Council, the agency is going through each of the regulations with a task force of 18 residents hand-picked by council members. [IMGCAP(1)]
“We heard a lot of concerns that the initial process, prior to the public comment period, had not included public comment,” said Jesse Rounds, the DPR community
planner in charge of the regulations, “so we wanted to give them a chance to at least look at it and give us one-on-one comment.”
Among the rules already removed is one that would have required a five-block radius around the park to be rat-free — a virtual impossibility in a city. The DPR also plans to decrease the minimum size of a “dog recreation area” from 10,000 square feet to 5,000 and give the DPR director the discretion to approve parks that don’t meet all of the regulations.
But Capitol Hill residents are still apprehensive: If major changes aren’t made, much of the green space in Ward 6 could be off-limits for their active dogs. And after the task force’s last meeting, DPR officials plan to meet behind closed doors, rewrite the regulations and then send them up through the hierarchy of approval — all without letting residents see the changes made.
“We’re hopeful that DPR in good faith will be partnering with us to make this a workable set of regulations,” said Bill Schultheiss, a Capitol Hill resident who is on the task force. “I’m still very concerned that if the regulations are not flexible, we’re not going to have dog parks in Ward 6 that are legal.”
Now, green spaces like Lincoln Park act as unofficial dog parks on Capitol Hill, with dogs illegally running off-leash. But Lincoln Park — and many other parks in the area — are owned by the National Park Service, meaning they are out of DPR’s reach. The agency controls only city-owned parks, 16 of which are in Ward 6. Fifteen of them are technically big enough to fit a dog park, but many have recreation centers and sports fields that could exclude them from including a DPR-approved dog recreation area.
“I think Ward 6 more than any other ward is affected” by the limitations of sticking to city-owned parks, said Charles Allen, chief of staff to Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells (D).
Further muddying the process is that several different DPR officials have been in charge of the regulations, with Rounds being the most recent. Although a consistent group of DPR officials created the regulations, new officials jumped on board during the community input process, Rounds said.
“That made the community relations process more difficult,” Rounds said. “Beyond making it more difficult, it hasn’t affected our ability to take in comment and synthesize it.”
But just because DPR officials listen to comments doesn’t mean they’ll use them. Although Rounds said the first meeting last week went well, he also said DPR plans to have the second and last meeting Thursday. And recommendations made in either meeting might never make it into the final rules.
“I’m not saying anything is going to change necessarily, but it’s helpful to hear,” Rounds said.
This worries Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham (D), who wrote the 2005 legislation that requires the DPR to draft dog park regulations and make dog parks legal. He wrote a letter to the DPR requesting that Walter C. Pierce Park — a legal dog exercise area in Ward 1’s Adams Morgan neighborhood that has acted as a test run for dog parks — be grandfathered in after constituents told him that the DPR “wasn’t very welcoming.” If the agency publishes rules that residents and City Council members dislike, the council could pass legislation to nullify them, he said.
“I think it’s a situation that we have to monitor,” he said. “I’m the author of the legislation. I don’t want that effort to be undermined and made a nullity by the regulations because we’re quite sincere about wanting these parks.”
By making rules that exclude most of the green space in the city, the DPR is not fixing the problem the City Council meant to solve, Graham said.
“I’m not suggesting for a moment that there’s not controversy. I know that there’s controversy,” he said. “The best way to address these issues is to do the best to accommodate and recognize the need — and there are just incredible numbers of people, many newcomers, many old timers, that have animals they want to exercise — rather than having mass arrests and having citizens fighting with each other. … Let’s see if we can accommodate the needs.”