Redington Shores Commissioner Jennie Blackburn, who supports a dog park, is pictured at the north end of Del Bello Park where a site is under consideration.

REDINGTON SHORES — Discussion by the Town Commission on creating a dog park in a portion of Del Bello Park has ignited a reaction that Mayor MaryBeth Henderson said was “the most passionate and equally divided I have ever seen” in her years on the commission or living in the town.

“I have never seen so much passion or more complete opposite opinions, that are so equal that it is almost impossible to decide what the right answer is,” the mayor said at the March 31 commission workshop. “I can’t tell what they want, from all the phone calls, emails and texts, because they are so passionate and so divided.”

Henderson said the dog park issue is “one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever seen since I’ve been here.”

At one point, she recommended the dog park be put to a vote of the residents. “It will cost a lot of money, so give it back to the people to decide if they want it.”

The dog park was also on the commission workshop agenda in February, where the discussion caused little controversy. Then, Commissioner Jennie Blackburn, who proposed the dog park, said it would be in a small fenced-off section of the park, and would require the moving of only one piece of exercise equipment.

The expected cost would be between $90,000 and $100,000, Blackburn said in February, with the most costly element ($60,000) being a special surface that would cover the ground, which Blackburn said would be easier to maintain than grass.

Commissioners and residents who spoke at the February meeting were mostly in favor of the dog park, and several offered to help raise the funds needed to build it.

That changed at the March meeting, where commissioners had heard pro and con views from their constituents, and many residents spoke passionately at the meeting. Several said an article in the Beach Beacon had informed people about the proposed park and, in Commissioner Michael Robinson’s words, “created chaos.”

The dog park discussion began with Blackburn, who told of the dog park’s benefits and addressed what she said were the residents’ major concerns.

Commission also divided on dog park

Blackburn said residents she had heard from were solidly in favor of the dog park. Of the residents she heard from, Blackburn said 128 were for it, and 34 were against it.

District 4 Commissioner Bill Krajewski said his district overwhelmingly supports the park. “Some didn’t know this was being proposed, and when they did, they said they were in favor and their checkbook was out to help pay for it.”

Robinson said he was concerned about the cost of the project. “We are a long way from a final proposal,” Robinson said. Whatever it costs, “it will have a financial impact along with everything else. We must consider it a priority along with every other priority, as part of the budgeting process.”

Robinson said the town had taken “a big hit from COVID,” and there were coming increases in police, fire, EMS costs and other budget items.

Robinson said residents in his district, which includes Redington Towers, are “soundly opposed” to the dog park.

“I also have some questions about whether a dog park is a good decision for a town our size with the space we have available,” Robinson said. “Are we willing to cordon off a portion of our open space for a special purpose?”

Commissioner Cinda Krouk noted that all town parks have special purposes, to meet specific groups of people’s needs. “There is tennis, an exercise park, a children’s park, and a family park,” she said.

Advantages and misconceptions

Blackburn said the proposed dog park would have the advantage of a special soft surface instead of grass.

“That will cost more up front, but over time there will be less maintenance and will be much easier to clean and take care of,” Blackburn said.

She also wanted to dispel misconceptions about noise, dog waste and parking.

Responding to a specific complaint, she said, “There will not be barking form before dawn into the night.” The park will have very specific hours, and will not be open at night, she said.

Also, sun shades in the dog park will buffer the noise up to Redington Towers, Blackburn said.

Resident and dog walker Christy Herig said people concerned about noise from the dogs in the dog park “should go to Walsingham, the largest dog park in the area, and measure the noise level there, then measure the (road) noise on Gulf Boulevard, and see the difference.”

There will be custodians to see that the dogs’ owners pick up their droppings, and doggie bags for disposal, Blackburn said.

As to parking, Blackburn said many residents are within a 5- to 10-minute walk of Del Bello Park and would not need to park. She believes dogs who are walked to the dog park are more relaxed when they get there because they have burned off some energy. Others can park along Gulf Boulevard, and if spaces are not available, that could help limit overcrowding at the dog park.

Mayor Henderson said she was not opposed to a dog park at Del Bello Park, but as an alternative, the “No Dogs Allowed” signs could be removed and leashed dogs allowed in the parks.

“That says we have a dog-friendly park. We could see how it goes. Kind of a ‘try it before you buy it’ approach before creating a dog park,” Henderson said.

Robinson agreed that would be another alternative. “We could suspend the ‘no dogs allowed in the parks’ ordinance for that park for a period of time. See how the noise goes,” he said.

Blackburn said there are a lot of advantages to a fenced in, off-leash park. Dogs often behave better off-leash, she said. No toys would be allowed. If there is any sign of aggression, the dog is kicked out. Having an enclosed, off-leash park is a good alternative to illegally taking dogs on the beach, she said.

Residents speak out

Over 50 residents watched at least a portion of the dog park segment of the meeting on Zoom, a new record for participation, and many of them spoke. A number were from Redington Towers, which is across the street from Del Bello Park, and most of them opposed the park. Other residents favored the dog park, but they were outnumbered among the speakers.

Marcia Hunter of Redington Towers was concerned that “people from Clearwater to Treasure Island will bring their dogs here.” She also wanted to know who will enforce the rules at the dog park.

“I love the idea of a dog park, but (Del Bello) is not the place to put it,” Hunter said.

Susan Watkins, also of Redington Towers, said dogs get into fights. “Who will be liable if a dog attacks people?” she said. Watkins was also concerned that people will not pick up their dog’s droppings, and “we will have people from all over coming to the dog park.”

Paul Monson said noise carries in Redington Towers. “I heard yaps from a police dog on the other side of the building as if it was on my balcony. It was that loud from 19 floors below,” he said.

Carol Muszik said she supports a dog park. She said a decibel meter to measure noise “would be great to try.”

Veronica Katz said most towns have a dog park, “so the likelihood they would travel to ours is slim.” She also said a Treasure Island dog park was narrowly approved in “a very contentious heated debate,” but now “it seems there are no complaints or any real problems.”

Dog owner Marie Palena said she recently visited the dog park in Indian Rocks Beach and saw big dogs and small dogs together. “There was no problem on an active afternoon,” she said.

“I’m all for the dog park,” said Melody DeWitt. “I’ve gone to all the dog parks in the area and never seen any issues. The owners are very courteous, they pick up poop, the parks are clean and there are no fights. There’s more poop on Gulf Boulevard than in the dog parks,” she said.

Most commission members said a formal proposal is needed for the dog park, with diagrams showing the exact placement, and cost details. The issue will now go back to the Parks and Recreation Committee.