A group that wants the City of Stone Mountain's Red Dog Park to reopen have sent letters to members of the municipality's government this week with questions and concerns about the park's recent closing, measures to alleviate problems that weren't put in place, and nearby residents' complaints.
The city council voted unanimously to close the dog park until further notice on Dec. 6.
"On 12/7/11 when I arrived at the park, to my surprise the park was closed," wrote Aleksandra Hoagland, who brought her dog Trixie to the park. "I thought that the dog park community was working together with city council to resolve the issues with the residents. That was clearly shown not to be true when the dog park was closed with no notification to the dog park community. I and other members of the dog park community felt betrayed when we arrived at the dog park on 12/7/11."
Hoagland and two other supporters of the dog park, Kay Hopkins and Denise Burch, met with Patch this week to discuss their findings, concerns and plans. They want the dog park reopened by Feb. 15.
Patch also asked three city council members -- who had been contacted by Hoagland and Hopkins via e-mail in the wake of the closing -- about the park, its potential, missteps and what needs to happen going forward.
"I think it's a very important part of the community and I think the problems we're having need to be resolved," said city council member Susan Coletti. "I think in the near future we can resolve most of the problems and therefore have everybody happy. It's unfortunate that it seemed to blow up all of a sudden."
The Two Sides
Red Dog Park, at Third and Poole Streets, was enjoyed by pet owners who say they miss the sense of community and socialization the space created, and disliked by folks who live in the surrounding residential area who said they were fed up by the noise level and behavior of some dogs and their owners.
"Once the city council stepped in, both sides were so mad with each other," said city council member Richard Mailman.
At the Sept. 20 council work session during citizens' comments, according to the meeting minutes, city resident Mark Keyton told the council that people were arriving at the dog park at 6:30 a.m., creating noise in the neighborhood; he suggested the city post a sign with park hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The following month, in October, residents and the dog park community -- some of whom had once interacted at the dog park, visitors say -- met with members of the city councill to talk about the problems and possible solutions, Hoagland said.
At the end of that gathering, Hoagland wrote in her letter, "we came up with the following: new hours of operation, the dog park community members will supply water, and a lock will be placed on the gate during non-operational hours."
But Red Dog Park's new hours were never posted and people were still able to come in because the gate wasn't locked, Hoagland and other frequent visitors said. Members of the dog park community said they tried to spread the word to one another about the new hours, but not everyone got the update.
Meanwhile, residents continued to voice their displeasure with the park's location and some dog owners.
According to the Nov. 15 council meeting work session minutes, four people spoke during the citizens' comments portion of the agenda regarding the dog park. One of them was Wes Autry, who said people still were not abiding by the park rules and suggested to the council that the park be relocated. Autry's son also spoke to the council about people trespassing and that he'd been verbally abused, the minutes stated.
According to the minutes, a person who has rental property next to the park, Jim Piera, told the council that he could not keep the property rented and that an LCI plan had the park at a different place.
Hoagland states in her letter that she emailed a city council member about the gate not being locked on Nov. 27.
"Since we changed the dog park hours of operation, to cumbersome hours that no one can keep up with, agreed to bring the water to the park for the dogs, and agreed that a lock would be put on the gate to keep people out during non-operational hours, why were there still complaints? It was due to city council’s failure to make sure all changes were implemented. The first failure came when there was no sign posted with the new hours as required by law. The second failure came when the city council failed to ensure that the gate would be locked during non-operational hours."
At least one resident who said he wants the dog park relocated, Wes Autry, was at the Dec. 6 meeting in which the council voted to close the park.
"We had no notice," said Hopkins, who has two dogs she used to bring to the park, Grace Kelly and Buddy Guy. "We thought that was very disrespectful."
Two weeks later, Hopkins and Hoagland both addressed the council during the comments portion of the council's Dec. 20 work session. They expressed surprise over the closing, questioned the validity of the 911 calls and talked about the fact there were no posted signs with the regulations, according to the meeting minutes.
Hoagland looked into the 911 calls about the park. On Dec. 22, through an Open Records request, she obtained those records from DeKalb County, beginning from January 2011 to December 2011, concerning the park's address.
Four of the six calls, which Hoagland showed to Patch this week, were dog park related. She said some of these complaints raised red flags with her and other park supporters who reviewed them.
For example, Hoagland points to two September calls from residents to 911 about people being at the park during off hours. But at that point, Hoagland and Hopkins said, the hours had not yet been changed.
Hoagland said while the old sign with the former hours had been removed, there was no sign put up with the new hours; council members Coletti and Mailman don't dispute this.
"It wasn’t followed through on," Coletti said. "Whose fault that was, I don’t know."
Hoagland also said 911 calls in November about people being in the park during off hours shows that the gate wasn't being locked.
"If the gates are open and there's no sign up, who's to say I can't come in here?" said Denise Burch, who used to bring her dog Deisel to the dog park.
"The people writing the letters, they’re not the problem people," Mailman said.
In Hoagland's letter to the council, mayor, and city manager she wrote: "Things seemed to spiral out of control when a lady, her mother, and their 4 aggressive dogs started coming to the park. They would put their dogs on one side of the fence, and the other dogs would be on the other side. The dogs would be running up and down the fence aggressively barking at the other dogs as if they were trying to tear down the fence. I suggested to city council a remedy to fix that issue (take the middle fencing out or take the middle doors off), and nothing was done."
Hopkins said there were also two non-aggressive dogs, owned by different people, that played and barked, adding to the noise some residents complained about.
Mailman said he visited the park on six occasions and witnessed an even split between harmonius times when "it was like the best dog park in the world" and unfriendly ones, with people "talking to each other terribly." In addition to the owners of the aggressive dogs that Hoagland mentioned, Mailman said there was a third person who didn't follow rules.
"There was not a huge problem except by these three people," he said.
Council member Steve Higgins said there wasn't just one person who spoke up about the dog park; four families complained. "I don’t think any of us realized what an effect it would have on those four families and property owners," he said.
Not all the residents' concerns were made to 911, council members say.
"I personally had many calls from the neighbors," council member Coletti said. "For whatever reason, it got out of hand."
Breaking down barriers
Hopkins and other supporters say the park didn't just give the dogs an opportunity to run and play. People formed friendships, got job leads and networked, made hospital visits, brought each other meals, and recommended businesses to visit within Stone Mountain Village.
Regarding traveling to another dog park, such as Milam or Adair, another dog owner wrote: "I feel so bad for him [the dog] but I just can't physically make that longer trip. Stone Mountain is where I live, not Decatur or Clarkston. I enjoyed seeing my dog have fun."
People of varying ages and backgrounds got to know one another at the park. "It's a love of dogs that breaks down all those barriers," Hopkins said.
Hopkins said these days, with the park closed and her questions about that move, she is less inclined to give the area as big of a plug as she used to.
"I don't feel like doing that anymore," she said. "I'm not going out of my way to help the city grow."
Fixing the Problems
Some council members say they see the value in having a dog park in the city.
Coletti told Patch she felt confident that sometime in the future, "it will come to pass that it’s open again and it will be a place where people in the community can once again convene and have their dogs use the property."
"I think it's going to be rectified," Mailman said.
City council member Higgins said, "I really don’t know how to make both sides happy." He said he has to consider include protecting the city's residents and listening to their concerns.
Mailman said the council plans to discuss the dog park at its retreat on Feb. 25.
Changes, Questions and Plans
Hoagland and Hopkins say the dog park's hours should be from 8 a.m. to sunset.
"Why is the dog park community punished when the city council failed to post a sign with new hours and failed to implement a plan for the locking of the gate?" Hoagland wrote. "It is hard to understand since the dog park community brings revenue to the city."
Supporters plan to address the city council at its next business meeting, Feb. 7 at 7:30 p.m.