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Big Changes Afoot at the Dog Park in Northampton!

It's a sad turn of events for the thousands of Northampton dog owners who rely on the "dog park" as an open space to their dogs to run and play. The following article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette suggests that if the new, more stringent plan for the Smith Farm Fields is approved by the state, dog owners would be required to keep their dogs on a leash at all times while using the property for recreational purposes.

As a Northampton citizen who lives near the "dog park" and uses it almost daily to get my dog the exercise she needs, I am disheartened by this news. Luckily, we live in the beautiful Pioneer Valley, where there are numerous other conservation areas with lovely hikes to enjoy. Still, the convenience of having this wonderful resource in the heart of our city has been such a plus. As any dog owner with an energetic, but friendly dog, can tell you -- an on leash walk just doesn't compare to being able to run free and play with other dogs. The joy they experience is infectious, and in turn brings joy to those of us who consider them a part of our families. It has helped me broaden my community as well.

Smith School trustees back leashed dogs at ‘dog park’

By STEPHANIE MURRAY
StephMurr_Jour

Daily Hampshire Gazette

NORTHAMPTON — Dog owners visiting Smith Farm Fields, popularly referred to as the “dog park,” would be required to keep their pets on leashes if the state approves the recommendation by the Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School board of trustees.


Tuesday evening’s vote prompted some 30 people, many of whom spoke in favor of allowing dogs to continue roaming freely, to leave the meeting abruptly.

A revised land-use plan, which includes the policy requiring dogs to remain leashed, now goes to the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, the agency that regulates the use of the property.

The 282-acre wooded property off Burts Pit Road is owned by the state, leased by the city and run by the school. For years, people have used it for activities currently not permitted under the state law governing the land, including dog walking.

A previous plan put forth by the board of trustees would have allowed “passive recreation,” including off-leash dog walking, to continue, according to Superintendent Jeffrey Peterson.

“It allowed virtually everything to happen,” Peterson said. “It was denied by the state” in October 2015 because it lacked structure.

The board of trustees presented its new, stricter plan Tuesday night.

According to Chairman Michael T. Cahillane, the land-use plan was drafted with the best interests of the school in mind, but it was not meant to upset community members who use the land for recreational purposes.

“This is not cast in stone, but we have to start somewhere,” said Cahillane, “Tonight is the start of a process.”

Changes in policy
The new plan states that organized groups holding events on the grounds, such as the Smith College cross country team, must submit a request form as they do when using other school facilities.

A no-trespassing order will be established to give the school “recourse” if an individual maintains unacceptable behavior, the plan states.

Dogs must be leashed and “under full control of their owner,” according to the plan. The plan predicts “recurring dog issues” will be reduced by leashes. The article was amended to add that dog owners must remove all dog waste from the grounds.

“Most dog owners still allow their animals to run off leash and although some owners have organized a committee to help clean up after their animals, clearly most owners do not,” the plan states.

Signs will be maintained throughout the property to educate the public on the school’s policies, and the school will maintain “best management practices” to show the public the primary purpose of the land is to educate students.

“In the past Smith Vocational had admittedly reduced its farming activity which gave large sections of the property the (appearance) that it had been abandoned,” the plan states. “SVAHS is now again managing the entire property.”

The plan also gives the school the authority to close the parking lot in “emergency situations” after consulting with the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, the mayor’s office and the Northampton Police Department.

An article regarding police enforcement was removed from the plan at the suggestion of Mayor David J. Narkewicz. He explained the suggested “weekly drive through” by Northampton Police and the city’s animal control department was “not legally feasible” because police cannot enforce school policies.

Police can, however, intervene in the event of a dog bite, a lost dog, or trespassing.

Community divided
The meeting was attended by approximately 50 people. About a dozen community members spoke for and against allowing dogs to roam off-leash at Smith Farm Fields.

John Schieffelin, 79, told the audience that walking his dog Dulce without a leash keeps them both healthy and happy. They visit the park six or seven days a week, he said, and Dulce “has a ball” playing with fellow dogs.

“We have this woodsy, open, natural place … This is a jewel in our city,” Schieffelin said.

Other speakers echoed Schieffelin, saying walking a dog off-leash is good exercise because the dogs do not “stop and sniff” as frequently and dogs can socialize more naturally without a leash. Many added that visiting the property regularly has fostered friendships among fellow dog owners and community members.

But free-roaming dogs pose a problem for others, such as Sue Grant, who runs a weekly race at Smith Farm Fields on Tuesday evenings.

“Fewer and fewer people are courageous enough to run on their own,” Grant said.

According to Grant, dogs jump on runners and discourage them from using the park. She said a leash law should be posted and enforced to keep dogs under control.
 

 

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