Dog owners mourn loss of off-leash haven

Sound Off is a public forum. Articles are selected from letters to the editor or may be written specifically for this feature. Today, Port Orchard resident Joan McNelly laments a recent decision by Kitsap County parks officials to require pet owners to keep their dogs on a leash while at South Kitsap’s Howe Farm.

I must respond to the article on the front page of the (March 3) Independent with regard to Howe Farm and the ridiculous new rules being implemented.

Howe Farm is indeed 83 acres — 83 acres of scrub, trails, trees and marshes. Its 83 acres are rarely used, and certainly not by the general public, since most people you mention Howe Farm to are not even aware of its existence. Except dog owners.

Anyone who has spent time at Howe Farm with their dogs in tow, watching as they run, sniff, fetch and roll, will know the feeling they are giving their best friends the happy time of their lives. These animals have a chance to run and play without worries about predators and cars — and without fear of being confiscated by some over-zealous animal control officer.

Those dog owners who do not have a place for their animals to run and play especially appreciate this park. Most dog owners are very fastidious about cleaning up after their dogs and make every attempt to keep this park clean and open for the enjoyment of the animals and the owners who bring them.

I have been taking my dogs to Howe Farm for two years now and, having a disability, it has been such a joy for me to be able to let my dogs run free and get some much-needed exercise and fun.

I have met wonderful people there and my dogs have made friends with virtually every dog we have encountered. Dog owners will be there in the rain, snow, freezing temperatures and blistering hot days. These are dedicated people.

On a rare day, there will be two or three people there at one time with their animals. It’s not as though the place is being taken over by canines to the exclusion of every other living creature.

And let’s be real here — we’re talking about 83 acres, on which you can hike with your animal for two hours and not encounter another soul.

Let’s see if I have this straight. The Parks Department would rather ban dogs from the park, or restrict them to a five-foot leash and have this 83 acres sit mostly vacant and unappreciated? I seem to remember our tax dollars seem to have a little something to do with even having a Parks Department, as well as the dollars to purchase and improve those parks.

I have spent enough time at Howe Farm to notice our four-legged friends are not the true problem when it comes to litter and disregard for the property. Empty beer bottles, cigarette butts, general trash, pieces of wood apparently used to start a bonfire and other items need to be mentioned. It would seem the teens and others have discovered the park and are using it for reasons far less worthy than letting a dog have 15 minutes of a great run.

It certainly makes sense to close the farm to only those who truly appreciate and use it and continue to allow those who appreciate it to have free access. This is, after all, a rural area of 83 acres.

We are not in the center of a large metropolis with pristine parks filled with landscaping and golf course-like lawns. This is the only option for those of us who love our dogs and it just breaks my heart to lose this little slice of heaven because some Parks Department official has decided to pull rank on a public park and discriminate against a group of folks who really, really enjoy these 83 acres.

Turn it into a real park

Former Kitsap County Commissioner Matt Ryan suggests the answer at Howe Farm could be its development into a traditional park:

From coverage about the county’s leash ordinances and use of the Howe Farm, it sounds like the reason for buying this land was to maintain some vestige of agriculture, a “working farm.” That is undoubtedly what it has been transformed into.

However, the reason I voted for the purchase was that it was presented as being suitable for development into sports playing fields and park land, while protecting critical areas.

I urge you to place this property in the queue for eventual development into a park. I recognize that this will arouse the anger of those who value view sheds over people.

Right now, there is a shortage of fields for youth sports and understandably a shortage of money to meet the need.

In the long term, people, especially our kids, need to come first and your planning should make them a priority. Adding to this is the friction between dog owners and the county over places to run their pets.

You may wish to re-visit the leash ordinance to make exceptions for certain county-owned lands and parks given the fact that your land use policies fence most people into postage stamp-sized lots and apartments inside UGAs. Other communities make allowances by specifying certain parks or areas for off-leash use.

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