After months of deliberations, site visits and listening, the Board of Selectmen at its August 8 meeting voted to allow the plans for a dog park at the Fitzgerald Property to go forward. Selectman David Lober abstained.
The Fitzgerald Property encompasses popular walking trails in the center of town, bordered by Beecher and Center roads.
The vote was based on a memorandum of understanding, which allows the Woodbridge Dog Park Cooperative to site an enclosed off-leash area on a parcel between the existing parking lot off Beecher Road and the fenced-in chestnut orchard. “It allows them to begin fundraising,” First Selectman Beth Heller said when introducing the memorandum. She cautioned that the map included with the document, and which shows a rectangular, L-shaped parcel, is only a preliminary site location. The final outline may change to avoid wetland impact. Also, the town may decide to remove the ice rink and place it in a different location, as it needs to be resurfaced and has not been used in a couple of years.
Even if the area that is now a skating rink were to be incorporated in the dog park, the memorandum gives them no more than 1.5 acres in total. It will be enough to construct a two-step entry with a foyer where dogs may be leashed/unleashed; an area for smaller and older dogs; and a larger field where dogs get to run freely and socialize.
Originally the cooperative, a grass-roots organization of local dog owners, had hoped for use of the orchard where an experiment to bring back the American chestnut has been taking place. The experiment is winding down, with only a few trees left in the enclosure. But the Woodbridge Land Trust, which ran the experiment for the American Chestmut Foundation, objected, saying that the trees and dogs don’t mix well. The town then embarked on finding an alternative site, looking at several town-owned parcels.
Critics of siting the dog park in the Fitzgerald area were concerned about disrupting the tranquility of the walking trails; they brought up traffic and parking issues; raised concerns about taking away agricultural land; objected to adding more fencing. Selectman Dave Lober said with his dissent he wanted to represent people who were unhappy with this location. “I thought there were better places to put it,” he said in a phone conversation after the vote. Even so, of all the places to put a dog park, “this is the least disruptive,” he said.
In addition, Lober was unhappy with the process with which the board came to a decision, as the memorandum did not grow organically out of the board’s consensus, but rather “came down,” in a move essentially calling the vote. First Selectman Beth Heller said the memorandum is modeled on similar agreements for the Pease Place Playground and a future 90-foot baseball diamond on the Alegi property.
It permits the cooperative to construct a dog park on a portion of the Fitzgerald property not to exceed 1.5 acres of land. The town will not assume any of the costs associated with the project, including engineering and site work. The group has 2 years to complete the fundraising and/or construction of the park; the period can be extended if they can show that they made substantial progress. The cooperative will keep the town up-to-date on an annual basis of the progress made. Construction of the dog park shall not begin until the cooperative has raised all funds necessary to complete the project.
The group must obtain approvals from land use agencies, in particular the Wetlands Agency, since the activity may fall within the upland review area of a vernal pond on the far side of the rink. The memorandum is signed by Bonnie Blake as the president of the cooperative and First Selectman Beth Heller.
Selectman Teri Schatz voted for the proposal. “This parcel is the least controversial,” she said.
Mica Cardozo agreed. He said the selectmen had looked at many different options and did not find a perfect solution. “The vast majority [of comments received from residents] said they want it at Fitzgerald,” he said. Of those who were opposed to siting it at Fitzgerald, many still wanted a dog park, he said.
“Time is now to take a vote,” added Selectman Joseph Crisco.
Members of the dog park cooperative cheered and applauded when the vote came in 5:1. During public comment they thanked the board members as well as town employees for their efforts to bring this project to fruition.
Forging ahead: Blake said the cooperative has filed for non-profit status, and will have its first Annual Meeting on Wednesday, September 5, at 7 p.m. at the Center Café. Anyone is welcome to attend.
The first order of business will be to elect officers and board members. They also want to create committees to deal with issues such as fundraising, design; a rules committee and a management committee.
They have made some inquiries regarding fencing costs. A basic chain link fence will cost about $50,000, Blake said. A more aesthetically pleasing pasture fence will be closer to $60,000. Blake said she hopes that they will have the support of the community and that people will step up to donate benches and maybe a couple of mature trees for shade. “We hope for an opening next summer,” she said.
The map showing a preliminary outline can be found on the town’s website, https://www.woodbridgect.org/DocumentCenter/View/2022/Dog_Park_MOU_signed_08-10-2018.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent