Editorial: Wrong Time

Dogs, they say, are man’s best friend. Many are also a woman and child’s best friend and are beloved members of many families.

So initially, the proposal to build a dog park in Weston seemed like a good one. But now is not the right time. There are too many uncertainties that should give this project pause.

Last year, a dozen Weston dog enthusiasts formed a committee, raised some funds, and scouted around to see if there were any town-owned properties to construct a municipal dog park where they could socialize with other canine kin.

One of the first plans was to put the dog park on the Fromson-Strassler property, an 80-acre tract of land in the northern end of Weston off Georgetown Road.

That idea was nixed due to the expense of constructing a driveway. The next plan called for putting the park on a 36-acre tract of town-owned land on Davis Hill Road, known as the Moore property.

Neighbors have objected to the park, which would bring increased car traffic and more people into their neighborhood.

There are pros and cons on both sides of the dog park issue, and there are no bad guys. Everyone makes good points about the merits and detriments of the proposal. Ultimately it’s up to the residents.

But Weston can’t live in a bubble. The town is part of the state of Connecticut which is undergoing a severe fiscal crisis, tinkering on the border of insolvency. That sounds impossible to believe with the abundance of affluence in Weston and Fairfield County, but it is true nonetheless.

Reuters news service reported last week that, “By many measures, Connecticut’s debt levels are the worst of the 50 U.S. states,” listing the following examples of the state’s fiscal debt load:

  • $3.5 billion deficit over the next two years
  • $50 billion of unfunded pension liabilities
  • $23 billion of outstanding municipal debt
  • Hartford considering bankruptcy due to its dependence on non-existent state aid
  • All three major Wall Street credit rating agencies downgrading the state in May

To help alleviate the state’s debt burden, Gov. Malloy has proposed severe reductions in state aid to towns and a drastic plan that would require Weston to pay $2.35 million in teacher pensions.

Legislators from both sides of the aisle can not agree on the state budget plan and as of now, the fiscal burden to Weston is uncertain because the state budget is uncertain as well.

Weston can initially withstand a budget hit by the state because it has $13.1 million in reserve funds, which instead of being returned to taxpayers, was stockpiled to rebuild the police station complex. But that project has been put on hold pending the outcome of the state budget.

Weston Board of Finance chairman Steve Ezzes has proposed instituting a hiring freeze and reviewing discretionary capital spending. Other towns, such as Ridgefield, are currently doing just that. Weston should too, and freeze employee hiring, promotions, and capital expenditures like the dog park.

Before the dog park public hearing on Sept. 9, there are questions that need to be cleared up.

What exactly is the cost to Weston taxpayers? How much exactly is the dog park committee contributing?

In 2003, the town purchased the Moore property for $2.56 million. There is an estimate of $35,000 for construction of a driveway and sightline improvements to be borne by the town.

The park will be maintained by the town’s Parks & Recreation Department. Will that department be seeking a funding increase to pay for additional staffing, equipment and other costs associated with the dog park?

The plan calls for Parks & Rec workers to empty trash cans and do weed whacking and mowing. But what about other significant cleaning and maintenance?

As diligent as most dog owners are about bagging dog waste, they may not always be aware when Fido decides to quietly do his business behind a tree or under a bush.

Earlier this year in Colorado, a municipal dog park in Denver was shut down due to high levels of infectious E .coli bacteria emanating from “piles of poop” which had accumulated on the park grounds. Park personnel said it was not their job to clean up the waste and refused to do it. So what is Weston’s plan for keeping the dog park clean and how much will it cost?

Questions have been raised about security at the park. Will it be open at all times, will it be gated and locked, will it be restricted to Weston residents, if so, how will that be done? How much will security measures cost?

The entire financial expense of the dog park should be explained in detail at the public hearing so residents know the scope of the project.

In addition, a wetlands area has recently been uncovered near the proposed driveway for the dog park. The Conservation Commission will not be discussing the wetlands until after the public hearing on Sept. 9.

With so many things to consider at this time, it makes fiscal sense as well as common sense to table the dog park proposal for now.

By Patricia Gay 
The Weston Forum Online