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Ruff Neighborhood: Barking, parking and other tails from the Starr Farm Dog Park 

click to enlarge MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen

Mark Barlow and his family have to speak in code unless they’re actually planning to take Oscar out for unbridled adventure at that very moment. “We say ‘D.P.,’” explains the resident of Burlington’s New North End. “If we say ‘dog park,’ he gets attentive and goes to the door. I’m not sure what we’ll do when he figures out what ‘D.P.’ means.”

Oscar, an Old English Sheep Dog, is among an untold number of local canines thrilled about the area’s first and, for now, only official off-leash paradise for pooches. Their owners seem equally pleased, though less likely to engage in tail wagging.

“When we turn onto Starr Farm Road, he jumps into the front seat of the car,” Barlow says of the trip that provides his pet with five half-hour outdoor sessions a week. On a brisk April afternoon, 2-year-old Oscar romps with at least a dozen other animals of all sizes, ages, breeds and temperaments — Churchill the Great Dane, Lamont the Basset Hound, Ryeleigh the Wiemaraner and Sage the Siberian Husky, to name a few.

Apart from the occasional brief confrontation, these creatures appear to be delirious with joy. It is a rare taste of Fido freedom in the otherwise penned-in, tied-up world of good dogs that need to run like the wind.

After several years of debate, in mid-December the city fenced in a two-acre grassy field just west of the bike path, across the street from Curtis Avenue and next to both a private horse farm and a plot set aside for community gardens. As early as this summer, the one-year pilot project could have competition.

A meeting on Tuesday might result in the creation of a waterfront dog park in the Urban Reserve, a 40-acre stretch north of the Moran Plant. Wayne Gross, director of the Burlington Parks and Recreation Department, says his commission is seeking public feedback on a plan that “would be about the same size as the one on Starr Farm Road,” he says, “but dogs would have access to the lake.”

To accommodate this bowwow beach, Parks and Rec must first ensure ample parking. “We might be able to build a small lot just north of the skateboard park. That’s about 1000 feet from the proposed dog enclosure, so this could be more of a walk-in situation than at the New North End site,” Gross points out. “Mayor Clavelle has said he’d support this new park to take some of the pressure off Starr Farm.”

Parking is one of several controversial issues at the existing leash-liberating locale. A makeshift space for automobiles, which is used by community gardeners from spring through fall, became a mud pit as a result of dog folks using it all winter. For the time being, the focus has shifted to the paved lot at the children’s playground and ball field further east on the same road. At yet another meeting on Tuesday, the Develop-ment Review Board will decide on the proposal to turn a rectangle of land near the park entrance into a 16-car gravel lot.

“We want to put a fence around it so the dogs can’t go anywhere else when they get out of their cars,” Gross says, noting a few instances of wayward beasts chasing horses in a nearby pasture.

Equine encounters are among the complaints Kevin Curley has heard from his constituents about the Starr Farm experiment. The Ward 4 City Councilor is concerned about increased traffic, bad smells and even a possible threat to real-estate values for anyone trying to sell a house in the vicinity of Poopville. Curley is also irritated that the police department’s animal-control officer has been called on a few occasions to check out reports of unruly mutts.

A good night’s sleep is at the heart of yet another imbroglio. “Dogs were barking like hell in the early morning, waking people up,” Curley points out. “At first, there were no limits on time for using the park. That’s about to change in response to complaints at a hearing a few weeks ago.”

Signs have just gone up, says Gross. As of April 15, the park will only be open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. from November through March, then 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. the rest of the year.

“It’s a wonderful thing to have a dog park,” Curley concedes. “I’m definitely not against the idea, but we’ve got to find a better fit. Maybe the Intervale or somewhere they won’t bother people. We have to consider the neighbors.”

Already, the park is attracting unwanted attention from out of town. Wayne Gross is puzzled that dog owners from Hinesburg and Bristol — each with plenty of rural land — have called for directions to Burlington’s lively enclave.

But on a recent Thursday before dusk, most of the dog-park patrons and their furry companions are from this particular ’hood: Mark Barlow and Oscar; Brent Howard and Ryeleigh; Marie Smith and Logan the Springer Spaniel-Black Lab mix; Gerald Koks and Moby the mutt; Ann Bombard and Diva the Pit Bull; Cheryl O’Toole and Jaaz, a rescued Greyhound sporting a plaid jacket.

These well-trained humans, who arrive with their dogs leashed, dutifully scoop up the droppings when nature calls — trash bins and a cache of plastic bags are available for that purpose. Drool-encrusted tennis balls and other treasures in a toy box are also available to entertain both Homo sapiens and man’s best friend.

A favorite game for Phoebe, an Australian Shepherd, is rounding up the other dogs. “Once in a while, I see that she has them all gathered together in the field,” says Marlene Williamson, who shares a New North End house with this bossy bitch from Down Under. “This park is a blessing. Other places we went off-leash sometimes got a little problematic when she tried to herd children. If Phoebe could talk, she’d say, ‘My dreams have come true. There is a dog God.’”

Williamson’s daughter Sarah, 10, has fantasized about setting up a concession at the park for dispensing nutritious, homemade dog bones. That way Phoebe and her slobbering ensemble could munch while owners snack on their own edibles at the wooden picnic table — the only “furniture” in sight — near the entrance. That scenario might well enhance the already strong Starr Farm camaraderie.

Just as the critters can learn to get along with each other in a leash-free environment, people find they have obvious common ground. “Sometimes we talk about birthing and children,” notes Katherine Monje, who lives with Churchill and a 3-month-old puppy near the University of Vermont campus. “But usually just about dogs.”

Marlene Williamson has even thought about inviting fellow dog-parkers to summer cookouts at her own digs.

“It’s a remarkable social opportunity for our neighborhood,” observes Betsey Krumholz, a Burlington School Board member who counts herself among the dog-park boosters. “It’s been young, old, all walks of life. You never know who you’ll see there. The dogs have their little buddies.”

Even before Starr Farm became a formal park, that’s where the Krumholz family took Gus, a Black Lab, for exercise. Yet she’s more enthusiastic about it than her husband Charlie, who is bothered by its proximity to the community gardens — which he coordinates.

Although he prefers to let his Husky-Yellow Lab run in the urban wilderness behind Kids Town in South Burlington, Burlington City Council President Andrew Montroll worked for years on the ordinance that made Starr Farm the first of five designated dog-friendly zones in the Queen City. Schmanska and Oakledge parks are other prospective locations, and a section of the Intervale owned by the Burlington Electric Department is also under consideration.

“We have many park facilities that try to accommodate different interests — softball, tennis, et cetera,” Montroll says. “It didn’t make sense to have no place people could recreate with their dogs. This is an important thing to do. But funding remains the big question.”

Parks and Rec head Wayne Gross recommends a sort of borrowing-from-Peter-to-pay-Paul process. The City, which sells about 2000 dog licenses each year, increased the fee from $12 to $17 in hopes of generating $10,000 annually for the specialized parks. Starr Farm has cost close to $8500 so far for fencing, trash removal and signage. If the new parking lot is approved, it could eat up another $5000. Do the math.

“We’re looking for the City Council to give us an advance on the next fiscal year’s funding,” Gross explains. “To construct the waterfront dog park, there’s another $10,000 available again in July. But we may need to ask for more. We’re not talking about a huge amount, and private donations are a possibility.”

The finances make Ward 4’s Kevin Curley nervous, however. “I’m wondering how much money is already being spent in Parks and Recreation staff hours. That wasn’t supposed to happen. It was all going to be handled by volunteers.”

But Curley seems willing to rein in his anti-paws crusade. “We’ll see if it works with different rules in place,” he says of the new Starr Farm time limits.

Meanwhile, the “D.P.” is bustling. Diva, Moby, Lamont and the gang, which now includes three-legged Roxie, have formed an energetic welcoming committee that greets each excited new arrival at the gate. Churchill emits several deep-throated, loud woofs. Sage howls. And Phoebe, a would-be leader of the pack, strategizes about coaxing these unfettered free spirits into an obedient herd.

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