WEST HARTFORD — As a pack of excited dogs took turns diving into the Beachland Park pool at the annual pooch plunge fundraiser, members of the West Hartford Dog Park Coalition were still figuring out how to bring a permanent dog park to town.
“Before COVID there was some stuff in the works,” said Phil Karlin, the coalition’s president. “And then everyone went to sleep for a year and a half. We’re trying to wake it up again. We’re waiting on the town on that one.”
It’s been a long journey for the coalition and their quest to have a dog park built in town. The support, they said, is there though. Monday night’s annual fundraiser showed as much, as over 200 dogs entered the pool with more than 170 families participating, making it one of the event’s best turnouts.
A survey the coalition recently sent out also backs that up, the coalition said.
Nicole Bittner, co-chair of the pooch plunge and a member of the committee, said early results of the survey showed that around 90 percent of respondents felt positive towards having a permanent dog park in town.
“We were really excited about the results,” Bittner said. “West Hartford is known as a premier place to live in Connecticut and this is something that is really lacking.”
Bittner said the need of a permanent dog park was proven during the pandemic, as outdoor activities became important for people’s mental health.
“We will have a safe place for your dog to get exercise,” Bittner said. “Mental health has been really important in the last year. A lot of people have gotten pets. Young dogs need to run and get their exercise in. Sometimes that’s really hard for people’s schedules.”
Helen Rubino-Turco, West Hartford’s director of leisure and social services, agrees that a dog park is something the town wants to see built.
“We think it will build a sense of community and that they help build friendships and connections,” Rubino-Turco said.
The problem, she said, is simply location.
“The problem with finding a location is that everyone wants a dog park, but not in their backyard,” Rubino-Turco said. “We haven’t stopped trying to identify a location. There should be multiple locations perhaps in town. But the spots that have been investigated, have not gone forward, because of strong opposition from neighbors. There are other spots we have looked at on the south side of town that might be suitable and we continue to work on those locations.”
Rubino-Turco said receiving input from neighbors is part of their department’s policy for a project like this. And some people have suggested to her department that they use part of an already existing public park, but that’s not something she is eager to commit to.
“Our public parks have a combination of active use and passive use,” Rubino-Turco said. “One needs to recognize the importance of that...and what that brings to our community. We’re very careful about over-structuring.”
But with the interest in town, she does foresee a dog park becoming part of West Hartford’s amenities.
“In general, interest in a dog park has grown over the years and people’s understanding of what a dog park is and how they operate and what their impact is in a community has evolved,” Rubino-Turco said. “We continue to hope that we can find spots that are suitable and we’ll keep working on it. We do see its value and we just want to do it right. We’ll continue to operate with the public input process that we have in place and hope that we can find someplace suitable.”
The dog park coalition plans to be ready once a location is found.
Suzi Craig, a coalition member, said they raised $4,460 from sponsors, ticket sales and prize drawings at the pooch plunge. That money, Craig said, will be put into their reserves for whenever they need to cover the cost of a permanent dog park. Craig said their current agreement with the town is that they will cover the costs of supplies and upkeep. The money could also be used to stage more pop-up dog parks, like they have in the past.
“COVID didn’t kill anything,” Karlin said. “It froze everything. We’re in the process of thawing out. Whatever was possible then is possible now. We just need to make our pitch.”