A debate has erupted in Sylva over whether dogs should be allowed in the town’s new Bridge Park, a small green space adjacent to downtown with a covered pavilion for holding concerts and community events.
The issue has split members of town board, which voted 3-2 to allow a 90-day trial period where dog use will be monitored — and in particular whether dog owners are diligent about picking up after their dogs.
“I really, really want people to take this privilege and use it responsibly,” said Town Commissioner Sarah Graham.
Town Commissioner Harold Hensley has been a vocal opponent of allowing dogs in the park, however, and voted against the measure.
“We just invested several thousand dollars on a nice big grassy lawn down there where they are supposed to do all these concerts,” Hensley said. “In a year from now it will be brown and spotted out.”
Hensley also questioned why people need to bring their dogs to concerts at the park in the first place.
“Why would you go out at night to listen to entertainment and drag your poor old dog?” Hensley asked.
Town Commissioner Stacey Knotts has attended several concerts in the park and witnessed dogs in the crowd.
“They were on leashes laying on blankets with their owners, and I didn’t observe any problems,” Knotts said.
Even if dogs are on a leash, Hensley doesn’t like the idea of kids and strange dogs in close quarters in public places. Hensley fears a kid will reach out to pet a dog and get bit, or that two dogs could get in a fight and hurt the person who tries to break it up.
Hensley added that it isn’t sanitary for families to lounge on a lawn where dogs have been using the bathroom.
“Even if they pick it up, I don’t want to sit down where it was just at,” Hensley said.
Knotts and Graham know firsthand the challenge of keeping kids out of dog droppings. Both are dog owners, mothers of small children and live downtown. They value a community where they can venture out with their family and their dogs in tow.
“We live in this community and walk our dogs and want it to be a dog-friendly town,” Graham said. “I don’t want my kids to run around and step in dog poop, but I also don’t want to prohibit dog use.”
Danny Allen, a challenger who is running for a seat on the town board against Knotts this fall, questioned her personal motivation in the issue.
“I don’t like using politics for self benefit as opposed to the overall concern of the people,” Allen said.
Allen suggested Knotts was using her influence to mold the town to suit her own purposes.
But Knotts said she would have voted that way regardless of whether she owned a dog herself.
“I just want the park to be open and accessible to as many people as possible,” Knotts said. “I enjoy seeing people out there with their dogs. It is a recreational activity that a lot of people enjoy, and I think the park should be open to those people.”
Bridge Park plays a special role downtown. It provides green, open space in the heart of the downtown district. The park is small and has few amenities. The grassy lawn is barely an acre. Its key feature is a covered pavilion with a stage, which hosts concerts and outdoor movie nights in the summer.
“The way it has been functioning has really been a joy to Sylva,” Knotts said. “It is an extension of the public sphere of downtown. That is kind of like our town square.”
Given its proximity to downtown and the fact that it isn’t fenced, it would be hard to keep dog walkers out, they said.
“Banning them would be more effort than it was really worth,” Graham said.
While the park has largely been a town undertaking, many community members and organizations donated to its creation.
Hensley and Allen point out that the town’s other two parks don’t allow dogs.
“My concern is we don’t allow it in the other parks, and so why should we allow it in that park?” Allen said.
Knotts and Graham countered that the town’s two other parks are fenced in playgrounds, quite different from the grassy open lawn at Bridge Park.
Hensley emphasized that he does like dogs.
“I am not against dogs. I have had dogs all my life. I don’t want people to misunderstand me,” Hensley said.
Allen said he also loves dogs. His own dog, Jordan, died this summer at the age of 14. He is still coping with the loss. But Allen said he has to separate the love he had for his own dog with the potential pitfalls of allowing dogs in a public park.
There’s one thing both sides can agree on. They are equally amazed at how much public input it has elicited — rivaling any issue town leaders can recall in recent years.
“There are so many things we deal with that don’t get a lot of interest, and something like this comes up and we are inundated with phone calls and email,” Graham said. “I think it is because it is a lifestyle thing.”
Knotts said the response has been overwhelmingly in favor of allowing dogs at the park. In fact, she said she didn’t get any feedback from supporters of a dog ban.
Allen said he has heard from those on the other side of the issue, however. He surmised they are just hesitant to come forward publicly given the ruckus raised by dog owners.
Hensley said he has received several emails from dog owners who don’t live in the town limits, but instead reside in Cullowhee or Webster.
“If you are out in the country, I don’t know why you need to take your dog to town to make a mess in the first place,” Hensley said. “That is utterly ridiculous to live in Cullowhee and think ‘I need to take my dog to Sylva to use the bathroom.’”
That’s not exactly what’s on the mind of Heather Bradshaw when she and her boyfriend Drew Cook load up their dogs after work and head downtown for an outing.
“It’s fun for us to get out of Cullowhee and come downtown where most of the action is,” Bradshaw said.
If the town portrayed an anti-dog stance, they might go elsewhere, which could ultimately be a bad move for the town.
“After work is our dog time so we like to take them with us,” Cook said.
The young couple recently visited Blowing Rock where a large park flanks an entire block of Main Street. Dogs weren’t allowed in the park, and it left them a bad feeling toward the entire town. They probably won’t go back.
“For some people, their dogs are their family. It’s like their kids,” Bradshaw said.
For Robert Lindsay, a downtown business owner, his dog is a big part of his life. When he adopted his husky three years ago, he never took mid-day walks.
“Now I am always getting up and taking him for a walk. Sometimes I don’t want to do it, but I always feel better after I do,” Lindsay said.
Lindsay brings his dog to work at his downtown insurance office every day. And every day, he hits the street with his dog during lunch, including the area around Bridge Park. Lindsay wasn’t aware of a town ordinance that required dog owners to pick up after them, however. He often let his dog poke around in the overgrown bank along Scott’s Creek and wouldn’t pick up after her since it was far off the beaten path.
But now that he knows, he said he will. To help educate the public, the town plans to install two baggie dispensers on Main Street to make it easy for dog owners to pick up after their animals.
“Putting those things out will be a big help,” Lindsay said.
While the most heated debate has centered around whether to allow dogs in Bridge Park, the issue initially arose over Main Street. Some merchants have complained about dog droppings left on the street and in flowerbeds.
When board members suggested installing baggie dispensers to encourage responsible behavior, Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower flipped through a catalog lying around town hall and found dispensers advertised for $400 each, with rolls of baggies at 50 cents a bag.
The entire town board thought that was too expensive. They asked Isenhower to hunt around for a better price, and after searching the Internet she came up with a far cheaper option — just $80 per dispenser and a penny a bag. Rather than pole mounted dispensers, these mount on town trash cans.
The town board voted to purchase two baggie dispensers for Main Street — a vote that was also a 3-2 split.
While several town board members, who originally saw the cost as prohibitive, reversed course when the quote came down, Hensley said he stands on principle.
“My theory was I wasn’t willing to spend one thin dime of taxpayers money for something that silly,” Hensley said.
Graham said the baggie dispensers will send a visual message to dog owners who might not be aware of the town’s ordinance to pick up after their dogs.
“I think when a dog owners sees these things on the trash can it reinforces the law that already exists,” Graham said. “It is a friendly reminder.”
Hensley sees the issue as catering to a select handful of dog walkers at the expense of all taxpayers.
“If you’ve got a dog, I shouldn’t have to buy a bag for you to go clean up after your dog,” Hensley said.
Hensley also doesn’t understand how a dog owner could forget a baggie.
“If they leave home with their dog on its morning exercise, they pretty well know it is going to do its business before they get home,” Hensley said.
If they do forget a bag, the dispenser stationed at two key spots on Main Street won’t necessarily help, he said.
“If a dog needs to go in the middle of town, are you going to say ‘We have to hurry until we make it to the end of the street?’” Hensley asked.
The baggie dispenser will be a welcome amenity to Tim Blekicki, who walks his dog along Main Street once or twice a day. For Blekicki, it’s habit to stuff a bag in his pocket before setting out. But sometimes his dog, Revelry, tricks him by going twice during one walk. With his bag reserve exhausted, it leaves Blekicki scrambling.
“Generally I go to a trash can and rummage through until I find a plastic bag I can use,” said Blekicki, 27, who is a sous chef at Bear Lake Reserve.
Blekicki said he has never seen a dog owner walk away from a pile. He has occasionally seen dogs roam through town off a leash with no owner in sight, however, and wonders if they could be the culprit.
Graham said she would like to purchase an additional baggie dispenser for Bridge Park — along with a sign asking dog owners to keep their dogs leashed and to pick up after them — if the board votes to allow dogs permanently following the 90-day trial.
While the town’s ordinance says dog owners must pick up after their dogs, enforcement is another issue.
“Our police force is already overwhelmed and our maintenance department is already overwhelmed and it is not fair for other parts of the town to be neglected just to take care of dog poop,” Allen said.
David Kelley, another challenger seeking a seat on the board this fall, supports allowing dogs in Bridge Park.
Kelley, who works at Livingston’s Photo on Main Street, knows firsthand that not all downtown dog walkers are diligent about picking up, however. A grassy area near their store seems to be a favorite spot with dogs.
“I have to weed eat a little section and I don’t like getting hit in the face with it,” Kelley said.
The hot-button issue has emerged just two months away from town elections. Hensley is among those up for re-election. If it costs him votes, so be it, he said.
“If people don’t like me to try to save them a dime, they can send me to the house,” Hensley said, adding that perhaps it would help his blood pressure would go down.