Dog Park Plan Doesn't Have All Tails Wagging

Supporters of the dog park include Kathy Thomas with Miss Lollipop, left, Lyn Payton with Dickon, Carl Roller with Zeko and Barbara Bermpohl with Ivan the Terrier.
Supporters of the dog park include Kathy Thomas with Miss Lollipop, left, Lyn Payton with Dickon, Carl Roller with Zeko and Barbara Bermpohl with Ivan the Terrier. (Photos By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo
By Sindya Bhanoo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 22, 2008

The scent of lavender lingering behind her, Marcia Stein glared at Barbara Bermpohl, who was holding a plastic bag of dog excrement in a D.C. park Friday afternoon.

"See? We do clean up after our dogs," Bermpohl said to her, one hand on her waist.

"Well, that's what you say, but not everybody does," Stein replied, squinting at Bermpohl from beneath her white, wide-brimmed hat.

Bermpohl, 57, and Stein, 69, represent two sides of a heated debate about a piece of the District's Newark Street Park, at Newark and 39th streets NW. One side is thrilled that its proposal for a dog park was approved by the city; the other is worried that the idea will ruin its 30-year-old community garden, adjacent to the proposed park. The battle has resulted in hundreds of people from each side signing petitions and testifying at D.C. government hearings.

It has been a long battle for Bermpohl and her group, the Newark Street Park K-9 Friends, which started advocating for a dog park in 2000. But when Clark E. Ray was appointed director of the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation last summer, he made dog parks one of his priorities. "We are a major metropolitan city, and we're a little behind the curb here," he said, citing New York's 20 dog parks and Chicago's 12.

Ray's department has budgeted $600,000 this fiscal year and next year for dog parks, including a quarter-acre area at the Newark Street Park where dogs can romp unleashed. It is scheduled to open at the end of the year.

For dog owners in the District, a long-standing leash law and the lack of any official dog parks prevent them from legally letting their dogs run loose and play freely with other dogs. But in a dog park secured with a fence, they'd be able to do just that.

Bermpohl walked Ivan, her purse-size Jack Russell terrier, next to Zeko, a 130-pound, fluffy, snow-white kuvasz, around Newark Street Park. The dogs pounced on one other, giving each other friendly licks and ear nibbles. "He wants to play," said Carl Roller, 31, Zeko's owner.

For Stein and other members of the Newark Street Community Garden Association, the thought of the neighborhood's dozens of dogs frequenting the park is enough to make them shudder. "I'm a former New Yorker and a former dog owner," Stein said. "I know what the smell is of having dogs peeing and pooping in one place -- and the noise is horrific."

The dog park will also border a children's playground, and many parents are angry about this. "There's the environmental concern -- these guys put their hands in everything," said Rob Wolfe, 36, who brings his 20-month-old son to the park and also has a garden plot.

But the K-9 group, of which Bermpohl is president, feels entitled to a piece of the park. "Some people play tennis, some people garden, some people have children," she said. "Everyone has a form of recreation, and our recreation happens to be playing and running around with our dogs."

These days, the only sounds at the park are chirping birds, laughing children and the steady pops of tennis balls hitting rackets. Occasionally, the bells of Washington National Cathedral can be heard chiming in the distance. "It's an oasis, a utopia," Stein said as she walked through the garden, pointing out the tomatoes, chard, marigolds, roses and zinnias.

"When the dogs are playing, there's actually not much noise," Bermpohl countered. "The barking is more often when they want to play but can't."

The dog park will use about 10,000 square feet of land. "It's not a substitute for jogging or running with your dog, but it is a place where dogs are able to play in a place with one another without their leashes getting tangled," Roller said.

Ray has approved two dog parks, the one at Newark Street and another at 17th and S streets NW, near Dupont Circle. A third proposed park, at 14th Street and Tennessee Avenue NE, is going through the approval process. Several other dog groups have also submitted applications.

The Newark Street Park gardeners, parents and dog owners have sent about 150 individual messages to Ray about the issue, he said. "I based my decision on technical merit," he said, "and I saw no reason why a dog park should not be constructed on this land."

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