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Town, Dog Park Officials To Meet After Shooting

  • Mike Appel of Woodstock, Vt., watches his dog Grady, right, and a Beagle mix named Freddie play at the Watson Upper Valley Dog Park in Hartford, Vt., on June 27, 2016. Freddie was at the park with his owner. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Hartford —Town officials and the organization that runs the Watson Upper Valley Dog Park will meet Thursday at the Hartford Municipal Building amid concerns raised by dog owners following the fatal shooting of a pit bull at the park on Saturday.

The meeting is being organized following an outpouring of questions about rules at the park and what happened, said Tad Nunez, parks and recreation director for the town.

An off-duty Hartford police officer who brought his two huskies to the park, and who witnesses said shot the pit bull as it fought with one of his dogs, has been placed on administrative leave as state police investigate the incident.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to address questions (about rules and operations),” said Nunez, who also said the meeting would not be a forum to assess the officer’s action during the incident or weigh blame.

But the meeting, which will include a member of the police department, will seek to clarify questions about use and operation of the dog park, which Nunez likened to a “park within a park.”

“We’re going to discuss what happened and proceed from there,” said Marina Silvio, the head of the organization that runs the dog park. “I want to address everyone’s concerns. I don’t want to make snap judgments” about what happened during the incident, she said.

Silvio said there would be a “second meeting with the public after Thursday” on an undetermined date.

The 1.5-acre parcel, which opened in the spring of 2007 after several years of planning and lobbying by dog lovers, is situated within Watson Memorial Park. The dog park section is managed by the Upper Valley Volunteer Dog Park Subcommittee, which reports to the Parks and Recreation Department and is affiliated with a group called Upper Valley Dog Park Supporters.

The subcommittee has a two-and-a-half page memorandum agreement with the department and town’s Parks and Recreation Commission that spells out how the former is “responsible for the day to day operations and supervision of the park’s activities.”

Nunez said that practically speaking that means ensuring the grounds are in order, lawn mowed, water and electrical bill is paid, parking lot maintained and the park’s rules are posted on site and online.

Because the town owns the dog park, Nunez said, liability for accidents on the property “falls to the town” just like it would with any other town park. The memorandum calls for Hartford to “maintain property and commercial general liability insurance including but not limited to bodily injury, and broad form property damage with limits of $2,000,000 combined single limit, per occurrence.”

“In essence it’s a town-owned park,” Nunez said of the dog park. “The town has oversight of it through the parks and recreation department,” he added, declining to address specifics of Saturday’s incident because the matter remains under investigation.

Asked about whether firearms are allowed on the premises, Nunez called it a “great question” and said he “had on the books” a rule to prohibit firearms in the park, which was “approved by the selectmen” at the time the park was established nine years ago.

But then following an incident where a complaint was lodged over a man who was seen wearing a holster and gun in the dog park, Nunez subsequently determined that the town ban had no effect under the right to bear arms clause in the state’s constitution. He said existing law prohibits the brandishing of a weapon or its discharge unless it involves a legitimate act of self defense or a situation that falls under the state’s animal control statute that allows for the killing of the animal if it’s attacking a human or another animal.

The Watson dog park costs between $2,500 to $3,000 to operate, according to the park’s website. Minutes from the March meeting of the subcommittee report that the dog park supporters seek to raise $3,000 in donations annually, but this year is raising the target to $6,000, which “was determined to be realistic.” In 2015, the supporters group had 16 members, including 5 new and 11 renewals.

Funds are raised through donations, the sale of calendars and membership fees.

Originally, Upper Valley residents who were lobbying for the creation of a dog park sought to build it in Hanover, and then Lebanon, but eventually turned to Hartford when it became too difficult to secure a location on the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River. The cost to build the Watson dog park was $50,000 plus another $15,000 for the parking lot, according to newspaper stories at the time.

The Watson dog park was the Upper Valley’s only dog park until the Shaker Field Dog Park opened in Enfield last summer.

There are about 1,200 off-leash dog parks in the U.S., according to the National Recreation and Park Association. The world’s first official dog park was Ohlone Dog Park in Berkeley, Calif., which opened in 1979, according to the association’s website.

The meeting is at 12:30 p.m. on Thursday at the Hartford Municipal Building.

John Lippman can be reached at 603-727-3219 or jlippman@vnews.com.