Taking a stroll on High Parkway in Rocky River, Ohio, it's hard to deny the tranquility of the area. Save for the din typical of living in a densely populated environment - planes from the nearby airport, traffic from the nearby expressway, trains, children, etc. - High Parkway is a very peaceful and quiet neighborhood.
You'd never guess this was the front line for a tense battle of city vs. city...all over the local dog park.
With all the dog owners in our society, dogs have become a very real part of the modern family. Pack animals by nature, dogs are healthier and better behaved when properly socialized and exercised. Dog parks provide a perfect solution to our busy schedules: a fenced-in area where our mongrels can run off-leash, and play with other dogs.
And they're good for people, too. As the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) points out, "dog parks are beneficial to both dogs and their guardians, who frequently share dog-care information and exert peer pressure on others to become more responsible as well as demonstrate the value of the human/companion animal bond to the public at large."
With almost 40% of all households owning dogs according to the Humane Society, nearly every major metropolitan area in the North America has a dog park.
Cleveland, Ohio is no exception. Boasting a population of over 2.2 million people, the Greater Cleveland metropolitan area has at least 10 dog parks, including a couple dog beaches along the Lake Erie shore. Each dog park is unique in their features; some are larger than others, some have grass terrain and others have gravel.
While each dog park remains a cherished part of the community, the 0.7-acre Lakewood Dog Park - on the border of Lakewood and Rocky River - has become a favorite for dog owners in Northeast Ohio.
Lakewood is the first city west of Cleveland, a mere five miles away from Cleveland's Public Square. Technically a suburb, Lakewood is just as much of an urban area. It has historical houses juxtaposed with apartment buildings of every kind, from high rises to duplexes...all within walking distance of some of the area's best dining and nightlife. With a population of 56,646 and 26,693 households living in 6.7 square miles (2000 US Census), it's the most densely populated city in Ohio.
Flaunting tree-lined streets, Lake Erie shore to the north, and thriving social scenes, it's no wonder Travel & Leisure rated Lakewood as one of the "Top 10 Coolest Suburbs Worth a Visit." At the same time, Business Weekdubbed the city Ohio's "Best Place to Raise Your Kids."
On the western border of Lakewood rests Rocky River. More of a bedroom community than Lakewood, Rocky River has a population of 20,735 living in 9,709 households residing in 5.6 square miles. While the neighborhoods look similar to Lakewood's, the houses tend to be slightly nicer - being the median income is almost $30k higher - though it has a smaller urban area.
Both cities are within a 15-minute drive of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, the largest airport in the state of Ohio, as can be told by the planes regularly flying in and out every 15 minutes or so during most hours of the day. The noise overhead simply becomes part of the ambiance.
Both cities are also located along US Interstate 90, the longest Interstate Highway in the United States. With a closer proximity to most homes than the planes flying above, traffic on I-90 provides a constant whoosh, like some mechanical river that never stops. This too quickly becomes part of the background noise, especially because living so close to the highway is one of the main reasons people move here in the first place.
Despite these urban realities, Lakewood and Rocky River share an impressive amount of parkland, specifically the Rocky River Reservation, a wooded valley in the Cleveland Metropark system that lies on the border of the two cities. The Reservation offers everything from hiking trails to multipurpose sports fields and pavilions, which see thousands of visitors each year.
It is in this valley that, in 2003, the City of Lakewood - upon the urging of both Lakewood and Rocky River residents - decided to build their dog park. With so many people in both cities having dogs, it was only a matter of time before they dedicated a spot for their beasts.
The Lakewood Dog Park opened on June 27, 2003, on an open piece of land next to Lakewood's wastewater treatment plant, as far away from residents as possible. Despite its relatively small size, it's one of the most popular dog parks in Northeast Ohio. It features the typical accoutrements found in dog parks - running water for the dogs, 6' fence, double-gated entry points, benches, etc. - but what sets it apart is the community atmosphere. The people there take pride in their park, and form close bonds with one another.
It is maintained by the Friends of the Lakewood Dog Park, "a citizens organization who wish to make the Lakewood Dog Park the best it can be," according to the group's president, Chad Bray.
"We work to maintain and clean the park, educate the public about dog park etiquette and rules, and serve as a liaison between park users and the City of Lakewood. We achieve this by doing numerous things including stocking dog waste clean-up bags, keeping up the landscaping, maintaining the website and email distribution, putting out a newsletter, etc."
In a town known for its strong sense of community, the dog park was embraced with the same zeal as everything else. The Lakewood Observer noted that, "the dog park patrons are one of the best group of citizens in this city" for how well they maintain the park.
The park was an immediate hit. "The dog park is a huge social asset to the community," says Rocky River resident Susan Sabik. "This is a park where people can go (at no charge) and talk with people that have at least one common interest (the dogs). People have become friends with each other there, these people see each other on a daily basis in most cases. Not to mention that the dogs are socialized and exercised a safe and friendly environment."
Lakewood resident Karen Karp agrees. "I think it's huge...it's an asset to the city just like any other municipal amenity would be."
Kent Cicerchi - who lives in nearby Brooklyn - also sees the dog park as a vital component of the community. "The dogs bark less at the dog park than they do when they're chained up or fenced into their own properties. There, they can't interact with each other. They're trying to get to each other, they want to play, they're by nature pack animals that want to be in groups, and when they can't be because they're divided on different properties - however we decide to keep them separated - they tend to bark more."
Cierchi also notes that the park serves people who don't have dogs. A regular at the park, he's been there when some residents of Kemper House - a residential care facility that specializes in Alzheimer's disease and related dementias - came for a visit.
"This summer," he says, "the person that works for the facility came to the fence, and asked me if the dogs in the park have their shots. I explained, 'well, that's one of the prerequisites to the park; dogs are supposed to be vaccinated.'
"And she then asked if several of us wouldn't mind bringing our dogs onto the bus, to interact with their patients.
"And so we did...we had one of each size, and we got on the bus. When you see people that can barely talk, some in wheelchairs, some with walkers...it is really neat to see them all start to respond to the dogs. And the dogs are all very respectful of these people. There's a sense that these dogs have, that this is not somebody to bark at, or to knock over, or nip at, or run into...they'll come up and let people pet them."
Karp has had similar experiences. "I've spoken with two people, separately on different occasions, both recuperating from illness. Their husbands had driven them there, and they were sitting in the passenger side of the car alongside the fence, watching the dogs. 'This is my outing for the day.'"
Marilyn Mulligan - a retired 1st grade teacher who's lived in Rocky River for almost 38 years - notes that the dog park is, "for a person my age, really a godsend. And there's a lot of people my age there, because we can't walk our dogs anymore. I used to walk four miles a day with my English Springers, all around Rocky River. I just can't do that anymore. I had a hip replacement; you get older, you can't do it."
Moreover, its location between the cities has helped business in both Lakewood and Rocky River, as people who regularly use the park incorporate nearby stores into their routine.
Unfortunately, not everybody feels the same way about the dog park. Rocky River resident (and City Prosecutor) Michael O'Shea scoffs at this silly notion of community asset, saying, "I don't think the dogs really give a crap one way or another."
About 500 feet or so south of the dog park, atop the valley's thickly forested hillside, lies High Parkway. The street has 13 houses with backyards running into the Metropark, with another 30 households featuring similar yards in the neighborhood.
They have the convenience of city life, while living practically in a forest. As O'Shea describes the neighborhood, "being essentially blended into the Metroparks...these folks live outside the back of their house, rather than the front.
"It's almost like if your house was on the ocean, the house is then constructed in such a way that, if your back part is toward the ocean, that's where your patios are, that's where your glass is. And that's how you live, that's how you socialize, you entertain, you have your coffee in the morning, you have cookouts. It's all done primarily in the back.
"Well, prior to the construction of this dog park, the vast majority of these folks spent a lot of their home social time in their back yards, or in the back part of their house."
One resident - who declined to be interviewed for this article, and out of courtesy we'll call Mrs. Smith - took issue with the dog park from the start, and complained about the noise. She kept a daily log of the barking, which she felt was "disrupting their social life," according to O'Shea. Mrs Smith claimed that the dogs barked non-stop, "14 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," as O'Shea put it.
Mrs Smith and a neighbor - we'll call her Mrs. Jones, as she too declined to be interviewed - contacted authorities in both Lakewood and Rocky River to deal with the problem. Their complaints were addressed...and found to be paltry. Still, they continued complaining.
The Friends of Lakewood Dog Park, in an effort to be good neighbors, tried earnestly to work with the two households, limiting the hours of the dog park, and locking the gates when it was closed.
It wasn't enough, and Mrs Smith eventually petitioned her husband and neighbors to join in the fight.
They tried to get the park moved to a part of the valley that is known to flood every winter and spring. They tried to get the park to force all dogs to wear muzzles. Naturally, these suggestions were turned down.
Feeling out of options, Mrs. Smith pushed Rocky River to sue Lakewood. O'Shea filed a lawsuit in 2007, citing a consistent nuisance generated from the dog park, which he'd later compare to "the Chinese Water Torture" in trial. By March 2010, the city of Rocky River had spent over $17,500 in taxpayer money trying to get the park shut down.
But not everybody in Rocky River sided with the suit. In fact, MOST Rocky River residents aware of the case were infuriated that their tax dollars were being spent in what the Cleveland Scene called, "the most engaging misuse of funds in Rocky River history."
"Rocky River really is a wonderful, wonderful place to live," says Mulligan. "We have all kinds of wonderful services...and I just couldn't imagine our city using my money, tax money, to sue this beautiful park."
"It's a frivolous waste of money," she added. "I mean, dogs bark, but it isn't a constant thing. If they get into a barking situation where they're playing with each other, the people separate them."
Susan Sabik concurs, "I do not feel that the use of taxpayer dollars in this case is working for the greater good for either city. Rocky River has spent close to $20K on this nonsense. The claims that Rocky River have presented are not reality but a perceived reality of one of the two original co-complainants."
Despite this outcry, the case went to court in July, 2010.
Both cities hired an audio expert to test the sound levels coming from the dog park, as heard up on High Parkway. Edward Walter - a seismologist & acoustical consultant - performed a series of thorough "acoustical testings," using highly precise sound level meters in various areas of the valley, as well as in Mrs. Smith's backyard.
He testified that, "the first time we started off with the dog park, and I didn't hear any dogs barking, and the park was occupied...ultimately we went up to the [Smith's] backyard, and it was pretty quiet up there as well."
When establishing a control in the park - by isolating a single dog in the park, and registering its bark from the various testing points- Walter testified that "we weren't getting much activity whatsoever on the sound level meter...we had difficulty hearing the dog."
Nevertheless, they set their control, and conducted several tests, where members of his team would monitor the sounds from the Smith's backyard from 7am-9pm. Their conclusion was that the dog barking was quieter than the planes flying overhead, motorcycles driving through the valley and on nearby streets, and the traffic on I-90; even the wind registered louder than the dog barks.
"Somebody must've got to this guy," O'Shea dismisses when asked about the study. Even so, his own witnesses at trial admitted that it's not the nuisance he's made it out to be.
One High Parkway resident said, "the dog park isn't a consistent thing" while on the stand, and later added, "I want to emphasize, of course, that it doesn't occur non-stop."
Even Mr. Jones - one of the suit's plaintiffs - testified, "it was not all day long," and then admitted, "if I had a dog in an apartment some place, I'd want the dog to go to the dog park."
The trial ended after eight days of testimony, with an estimated total cost to taxpayers of about $100,000. As of September 2, 2010, O'Shea had a little less than three weeks to submit his closing argument, after which Lakewood would then have the same, followed by yet another two weeks for O'Shea to reply. After that, the judge will then determine the fate of the dog park.
Naturally, this battle has irked plenty of citizens - especially the many Rocky River residents who support the dog park.
"The elected officials need to be held accountable for spending the tax dollars in such a reckless way," says Sabik. "With that being said, it is also my hope that the residents of Rocky River remember how their tax dollars were spent come election time."
While both sides profess optimism that the judge will decide in their favor, it seems pretty far-fetched that the park will actually be shut down. Bray says if the judge rules in favor of the dog park, "the Friends of the Lakewood Dog Park would like to continue to keep a line of communication open with Rocky River. We would like to remain good neighbors and do what we can to make the best of the situation for everyone involved. I think there are still some solutions that can be implemented that will help alleviate the situation even more which we will look into."
In the end, it seems Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Jones are just going to have to accept the fact that, living next to a Metropark and in a community of over 77,000 people means sometimes, if they listen real hard, they'll occasionally hear their neighbors having a good time.