RIDGEFIELD -- Whose park is it, anyway?
Abrams Park, Ridgefield’s largest public greenspace and recreational area, is the site of a miniature turf battle: Little Leaguers versus canine cavorters.
Fenced, upgraded Little League fields have drawn dog lovers hungry for an off-leash area; dogs running in the baseball diamonds have spurred league officials to padlock their gates for the time being.
“We’re not anti-dog,” said Ridgefield Little League board member Joseph Vance. “We’re just saying our fields are not a dog park.”
“We are absolutely pro-Little League,” said dog lover John Schiessl. “That’s not the issue here. In the end, it’s a matter of public versus private.”
The city of Ridgefield, meanwhile, is hunting for real estate for an actual dog park, said public works director Steve Wall.
A contract between the city of Ridgefield and the Ridgefield Little League gives the private, nonprofit ball club first priority for field use during the Little League season (Feb. 1 through July 15 and Sept. 1 through Oct. 30) in exchange for upkeep and maintenance. Taxpayers don’t shoulder any burden for development and maintenance of the fields.
RLL has invested “literally hundreds of man hours and thousands of dollars preparing and maintaining and upgrading” three baseball diamonds in the 11-acre park, said Vance, who is also RLL’s umpire-in-chief. The work has included trucking in sand and ensuring decent drainage for the infields, he said.
“Infields are particularly sensitive,” said Vance. “That’s why you don’t run around on them when they’re wet. It chews them up, and it’s a dickens to fix.”
So the league was not happy to learn, last autumn, that a handful of area dog lovers had decided the conveniently fenced fields are perfect de facto dog runs. Unlike the greater Vancouver area, which boasts several official dog parks -- at Pacific Community Park, Hockinsion Meadows Community Park, the Bonneville Power Administration’s Ross Complex -- Ridgefield has no designated off-leash area for dogs. And it does have a leash law.
Around Thanksgiving last year, generic DOGS ON LEASHES signs at Abrams Park were superseded by padlocks on the Little League field gates. The folks who’d been bringing their dogs by to enjoy a bit of enclosed freedom were caught off guard. They’d received no word of complaints or problems from the city or the Little League.
“When the locks went on, nobody knew what was going on,” said dog owner David Dunn. “There should have been some kind of discussion.”
Vance thinks that’s ridiculous. “The field should not be used as a dog park. It’s not an appropriate mixed use. The locks are a temporary response to people violating the (leash) law,” he said.
“(T)he use of the ball fields as an off-leash area has caused some significant concern by the RLL that the money, time and effort they’ve invested in the ball fields is being impacted,” public works director Wall wrote in an email. “The fields have been locked by the RLL in an effort to prevent damage to the fields and to protect the years of investment in the fields.”
Dunn calls the damage minimal.
“You can see how much damage the dogs have done -- it’s basically nothing,” said Dunn, who believes deer and other wildlife have hurt the fields more than pet dogs. He added that dog lovers who use the diamonds are conscientious about cleaning up after their pooches.
Vance isn’t interested. “Somebody
might say, ‘I will be respectful and responsible,’ but once you open it up, how do you police that?” he said.
Dunn and other dog lovers who gathered at Abrams Park on a recent Saturday morning -- the baseball diamonds were locked -- said their point is greater than running dogs. The park is public property, they said; it may boast improvements the Little League has added -- but the land it’s all sitting upon remains public land.
“A significant amount” of the 11-acre park has been “blocked off from the public,” Dunn said. Since the fields now are always locked, Dunn pointed out, a measure supposedly aimed at dogs is keeping out everybody at all times -- except the Little League. Nobody else can use the field without hopping the fence.
“It’s supposed to be everybody’s park,” Dunn said. “But they basically view this as their private property. As a taxpayer, that bothers me. It’s a major issue.”
Vance dismissed that logic, too. Just because land belongs to the public, he said, doesn’t mean it can’t be regulated for its own protection. The locks at Abrams Park won’t be there forever, he promised -- but they are necessary now. It’s no different than when a public bathroom or playground gets closed because of persistent vandalism, he said. The whole public loses out because of the actions of a few.
“The locks are in response to people running their dogs, which is illegal,” he said. “There is no plan to permanently lock the fields. Nobody is trying to privatize Abrams Park.”
Official dog park sought
A solution may be on the horizon. Since this matter got some notice in a Columbian “What’s Up With That?” column last month, town officials -- including the parks board and Mayor Ron Onslow -- have stepped up their efforts to find a real dog park in Ridgefield.
Dog lovers The Columbian met with that Saturday were hopeful about a western corner of Abrams Park -- to your left as you drive in -- but Wall said that’s unlikely because it’s not part of the park’s official master plan.
“I won’t say it’s impossible, but we’re going to talk about lots of different properties and what we might be looking for,” he said of upcoming discussions with the dog lovers. Meanwhile, he added, it must also be emphasized that Ridgefield does have a leash law.