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Dogs battle boaters over riverfront park

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY (Week of January 9, 2014)

For about 10 years, people have been letting their dogs run free on a riverfront tract of land that had been earmarked for a possible future expansion of the Vero Beach City Marina.

Now, with marina expansion plans still stalled, and before anything else happens to the land, a group of dog lovers has formally asked the city to lease it to them for 20 years at $1 a year for a dedicated dog park.

Their bid has raised growls from boating interests who don’t want to let the site, with 1,200 feet of frontage on the lagoon, “go to the dogs” permanently.

The tiff has pitched dog lovers and boaters against each other in a land use battle that has spilled over from the chambers of city hall into the press and the airwaves.

The topic has even invaded the cocktail party circuit, with erstwhile friends now in opposite camps on the issue glaring at each other over drinks and canapes.

The land in dispute, surrounding the Bob Summers ballfield just north of the Barber Bridge, doesn’t have structures for dogs to leap over or drink from, or even benches for people to sit. It’s just a place to unleash the dogs, ranging from well-coiffed poodles to bedraggled mutts, and let them run. 

It’s one of two informal dog exercise areas in the city. The other, a hardscrabble piece of land on the mainland in western Vero by the Elks Club, is sparsely used, but several hundred people a week use the one on the island next to the marina.

Dog lovers have mounted a well-organized and vocal campaign on behalf turning the site into an enhanced, fenced-in version of what they now unofficially have.

But boat lovers want to see the 6.85 acres of land, estimated to be worth between $1 to $2 million, put to some marine use: perhaps an expanded marina, or a launching area for kayaks and crewing vessels.

Recently, the boating crowd has mounted their own counter-offensive.

“I’m afraid (city council members) do not understand the ramifications to our city if they vote in favor of letting this property ‘go to the dogs,’” wrote St. Christopher Lane boating enthusiast Bill Walker in a letter sent to the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce as well as to Vero Beach 32963.

On top of that, as some arch-taxhawks contend, the city may need to realize revenue from the land once it loses the millions currently contributed to the general fund by Vero Electric.

“I don’t know if the marina needs expanding or not, but to have that land only used for dogs, well, that is not something I am in favor of. I would like to see the dog park moved across from the cemetery on Old Dixie,” said Mark Mucher, a member of the Indian River County Taxpayers Association.

Dog lovers say officially securing the park near the ballfields is about protecting green space. Their vision of a dog park would be for all to enjoy, not just animals.

“We’re concerned they’re going to try and develop that. Before we know it, someone is going to come in and we’re going to lose out on that green space. This is about preserving green space for future generations and there’s very little time left,” said 75-year-old Jim Welles, a South Beach resident who’s leading the charge to have the city lease the park to his recently created group for the nominal $1 fee.

His group of 2,800 people who signed a petition promises to create and maintain a true fenced-in dog park. With about $25,000 in donations, the group wants to erect a fence on three sides of the unofficial dog park; the lagoon would be on the fourth side.

The park would be created in phases with the group promising to pay for routine maintenance such as mowing the grass. Welles is asking for a 20-year deal to protect the group’s investment.

“I’ve been a dog lover my whole life and I cannot tell you what this means to me and our other seniors,” Welles said.

Rob Slezak, who oversees the city’s parks and recreation department, thinks a compromise could be reached.  He acknowledged that the long-standing plans to expand the city’s marina would mean more money for the city’s operating budget. But those plans have gathered dust instead of speed.

Ray Neville, who grew up in Vero Beach, is one of those pleading for not only a water-related recreational use of the property, but also for a compromise.

Neville, who does not own a dog, said the space is not only too valuable to give away, but much larger than what dog enthusiasts need. He believes the city and all vested parties can find a spot of nearby land that’ll make everyone happy.

“This is the only piece of property left that can be used at some time for aquatic river purposes,” said Neville. “To put a park in that place is essentially pretending the river isn’t there. And once it’s done, it’s done and I can assure you it’ll never get undone.

“The notion that Vero Beach is not dog-friendly is just silly in my opinion,” said Neville. 

Neville adds that he does not want the city to compete with another dog park, Dogs For Life, Inc., which charges an annual fee of $365 to utilize its park just outside city limits.

Shelly Ferger, founder and president of Dogs For Life, which trains service dogs for people with physical challenges, said she has no objection another dog park within city limits.

Ferger said the main reason people tell her they don’t like the island’s present informal park is because it’s not fenced in. “Not having a fence,” she said, “is irresponsible.”

Dell Ross, who is over 80 years old and walks her dog, Riser, to the park each day, said she’d be happy with a smaller official dog park on the island.

“If they take this away from us, my life will not be the same,” she said. “My dog’s life will not be the same. We want it nearby because there are so many elderly adults that use it. We pay so much money in taxes and utilities that we should be entitled to something.”