Dog owners hoping for compromise

By Lisa Williams Ackley

Staff Writer

Will dog owners be allowed to walk with their dogs throughout Pondicherry Park, the 66-acre nature park in downtown Bridgton, when the town takes ownership of it from Loon Echo Land Trust?

After a thorough discussion at the Bridgton Board of Selectmen meeting Tuesday night, it was agreed everyone involved would attempt a compromise as best they can, in an effort to bring about a fair and equitable solution.

Presently, a specific area of Pondicherry Park near the South High Street trailhead is being proposed as an area in the park where dogs will be allowed.

Last fall, voters overwhelmingly approved — with 1,225 in favor and 372 opposed — authorizing the Bridgton Board of Selectmen to enter into negotiations with representatives from the nonprofit LELT for the town to take ownership of Pondicherry Park as a gift to the town, as long as the selectmen could successfully craft a conservation easement and a related stewardship agreement by no later than June 30, 2012, or the agreement would be terminated until renewal by the voters.

Over 710 donors gave money to the Pondicherry Park initiative over the last few years, and some of them told selectmen here Jan. 24 they would never have contributed funds, had they known their dogs might not be allowed throughout the park.

Yet, Peter Lowell, executive director of Lakes Environmental Association, who spearheaded the effort to have several local landowners donate the properties that today comprise Pondicherry Park, said it was the donating landowners’ intent to preserve the natural and sanctuary-like qualities of the park, which they did not feel should allow dogs, bicycles or motorized vehicles. He said he feels “obligated” to uphold that wish expressed by many of the donating landowners.

Lega Medcalf and Paulina Dellosso asked to have the subject of allowing dogs in Pondicherry Park put on the selectmen’s agenda for Tuesday night.

Medcalf said she doubts her family’s response to the Pondicherry Park effort “would have been as positive, if we knew we wouldn’t be allowed (with our dogs).”

Medcalf said Pondicherry Park should not be “a site for an exclusive, predetermined population.”

“It’s no different than Deering Oaks or Boston Common,” Medcalf said, noting that many state parks in Maine also allow dogs on leashes.

Safety issue?

Some at Tuesday night’s selectmen’s meeting said they feel safer walking in Pondicherry Park with their dogs.

“People tell me they don’t feel safe walking alone, and always walk with their dogs,” Medcalf said.

“We would like to negotiate and compromise on an outcome that is fair and equitable to all sides,” said Medcalf.

Mary Lee Jasinski said she and “99% of the women she knows” feel safer walking their canines in the park. She suggested the town do what other communities do by allowing dogs in Pondicherry Park after 5 p.m.

“I think they need to compromise,” Jasinski stated. “Had I known dogs would not be allowed, I would not have donated to Pondicherry Park — in fact, I want my money back.”

Dellosso told selectmen she hopes “a win-win compromise” can be achieved. She also said that she and other “responsible dog owners” would be more than willing to pick up the waste left by their pets and others’ dogs, as well.

Dog owner Lisa von Hasseln agreed with Dellosso, saying, “I’m for whatever we can do to get dogs allowed in the park, and I think there’s enough responsible dog owners to get that done.”

Selectmen Bernie King and Doug Taft are on the committee that is negotiating the easement agreement with LELT on behalf of the town.

Lowell explained that, when Pondicherry Park was first being envisioned, a professional planning team was hired to evaluate potential uses and their impact upon the Park.

“They looked at trail widths, intensity of the trails, usage, access and signage,” said Lowell. “Motorized vehicles, dogs and bicycles ­— those three things were hot topics, from the outset.”

“I want to state clearly that this is not an anti-dog movement,” Lowell said, noting that dogs are allowed along the Stevens Brook Trail. “The Park is really a nature sanctuary — a place to be quiet.”

“To have dogs or motorized vehicles runs contrary to the eight-year process and the conclusions of the professional planners,” stated Lowell.

Trail for dogs to be built

Lowell encouraged the dog owners and other interested individuals to join in the effort to open up a loop trail beginning near the South High Street entrance for dog owners and their canines and bicycles.

“It’s not started yet,” Lowell said of the trail. “I hoped we could have cooperation and make that happen. I don’t think it’s that big a task. I don’t think there’s any significant work involved.”

Selectman King pointed out that the committee is still in negotiations with LELT regarding the conservation easement, saying the committee’s next meeting is Friday, Feb. 10 at 9 a.m. at the municipal complex. The public is invited to attend the committee’s meetings, Selectman King said.

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