When I was first elected to council, the reading seemed incredibly formidable. All those reports and issues and background material. But after a few months and years, a certain pattern can be detected, and soon you notice the reports begin to repeat themselves as they move from staff to committee to council and then referred back to staff and once more through the cycle.
Also familiar become certain complaints and complainants. These become well-known to all councillors as residents shop for a sympathetic ear for their pet peeve.
One of these will be before the Community Services Committee tonight, the complaint about barking dogs.
Greenway Park is host to the third off leash dog park in London. Established in 2007, the park is a big hit with dog owners in the west end of the city.
Finding a location was not easy. Many people want dog parks, a place where Rover can run freely and socialize with other dogs, but even dog owners who can benefit from a nearby park don’t want it near them. They worry about noise, about strangers in their neighbourhood, about too much traffic.
That’s why council established strict regulations about the location of a park, at least 30 meters from the nearest residence.
It’s also why Greenway Park seemed ideal. It’s already a large park with plenty of parking and one frequently used for sports, picnics and dog walking. The nearest neighbours are 37.5 meters away on a hill overlooking the park. Since it is a popular park, there are always people walking, running, skating or cycling by, keeping an eye on things, in addition to routine surveillance by staff and the London Dog Owners Association. The park is open from dawn to dusk which means that dog owners can take their best friends there before and after work.
But unlike the two parks established previously, first at Pottersburg in 1996 and then at Stoney Creek Meadows in 2006, the one in Greenway Park has been the subject of continuing complaints.
According to the staff report, there have been a total of 37 complaints about the off leash dog park. Ten of these relate to parking issues which occurred prior to the construction of the parking lot. There were also a few complaints about dogs wandering at large in the nearby neighbourhood and one complaint about a dog bite. But the vast majority of complaints, 27 in total were about excessive noise from barking dogs.
But here comes the interesting part. Twenty-eight of the complaints came from the same person, mostly about barking dogs.
I myself was the recipient of several of those complaints when I served on the Board of Control. Early in 2008, when the park had been operating only a couple of months, I received an email from the complainant which I promptly sent off to staff for some feedback. But I had already heard about the complaints from the ward councillor, and the matter had been put on the council agenda. In light of that, I thought I had better visit the neighbourhood to find out what was going on.
It was a bitterly cold February Sunday afternoon that I set off. The temperature was -22C and, with the wind chill factor, more like -30C. Given the frigid weather, I didn’t expect to see many dogs or their owners in the park but that was not my mission. I wanted to hear from the people in the neighbourhood adjacent to the park. What were their perceptions?
I faithfully knocked at every door on the street. Most residents were at home, happy to be in out of the cold. At some doors, I made a quick inquiry about the noise from the dog park. Most people seemed pleased, if somewhat surprised, to be asked. Most conversations were brief; no sense in letting warm air escape. A few invited me in for an extended chat. Only a couple of households indicated that the barking was excessive or an irritant.
Then I approached the home of the complainant. There was a vehicle in the driveway, a good sign that someone was home. I rang the bell.
I sprang back in alarm as two large black Labradors hurled themselves against the front picture window, barking hysterically. I rang again. The barking and jumping continued but the door remained unanswered. I waited a few moments longer in the cold but no one appeared. I left.
But that evening I received an email from the complainant. She had been talking with her neighbours and learned of my visit. She had been at home but said she never answers the door because there are too many home renovators and religious groups soliciting. She hoped that I would call again but next time give advance notice. However, a few days later, she wrote a letter to the editor of the Londoner complaining about my “unannounced visit” when she was not at home.
Since then, she has made many complaints to councillors and to the media about the noise from the dog park, both winter and summer. I have made a point of riding my bicycle past the park at prime times and keeping a record of the number of dogs in the park and the incidence of barking. Those incidents have been few and far between.
That too, is what staff has learned from their testing. In the most recent tests, noise levels maxxed out at 65 decibels, about the same as normal conversation or average city traffic noise. By comparison, the nearby soccer park generated noise levels of 80 decibels.
This information has done little to appease the complainant. Following a delegation before the Community Services Committee in April of 2008, she stated in an email to several councillors that “[b]y the time we arrived home tonight the dog park parking lots were overflowing and the barking was in full swing. That doesn't surprise me because they had all this pent-up energy after keeping quiet over the weekend when they felt they were being monitored.” (Emphasis added).
Needless to say, despite repeated requests from the complainant, the off leash dog park was not closed by the previous council, although some additional planting was installed at the back of the houses to act as an additional buffer.
But a new council provides new ears to hear complaints. Last summer Councillor Denise Brown, representing her constituent, brought forward a request to have staff assess the feasibility of reducing the hours during which the off leash area of the park would be open for business.
Tonight, the Community Services Committee will consider the staff recommendation: do nothing. As the report points out, reducing hours of business and increasing the monitoring of the park will increase costs and reduce service while doing little to reduce the number of complaints. Or complainants.
Councillors, just say no.
It’s time to be dogmatic