(Reprinted courtesy of the Waterbury Roundabout.)
By Lisa Scagliotti
With membership on its volunteer committee waning, the Waterbury Unleashed Dog Park’s future is looking uncertain headed into the winter season.
“As of November 1, the Waterbury Unleashed Dog Park will be closing its gates indefinitely due to a shortage in committee volunteer staff,” wrote park committee chair Abby Teel in a letter to the community posted on social media on Wednesday.
“Over the last 18 months, the dog park committee has worked hard to ensure the park is a safe and inviting place for our neighborhood to bring their pups. Three members of the committee are moving out of the area and, therefore, there are not enough staff to effectively manage the park.”
With the exit of three active volunteers, Teel said in an interview, “That just leaves me.”
Opened in August 2015, the dog park has had a unique existence occupying a quiet corner of what was once the town dump but is now a hub of recreational activity in Waterbury. The park sits beside the Winooski River adjacent to the Ice Center ice rink. When it was created, a sizable group of dog lovers came together to advocate for the park with many participating in setting up the site that’s enclosed with a chain-link fence.
Its pavilion was built using a mortise-and-tenon timber frame structure by Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Waitsfield. Volunteers built a matching timber-frame informational kiosk that stands outside the fenced area.
The park’s amenities include running water, collection pits for dog poop, picnic tables and even a tiny library.
Up until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, volunteers regularly saw to its upkeep with regular check-ins, a schedule for mowing and snow-shoveling, and occasional work parties several times a year to keep things in good order.
But volunteer energy has lost some momentum recently. Teel stepped up early last year as an organizer and she said her roster of those willing to claim jobs shrunk to just a handful. Last weekend, just a few people showed up for a work day, prompting her announcement a few days later. “We need more help,” she said.
Some of the regulars who are headed elsewhere have offered to return to keep up their chores, but Teel said the responsibilities should fall on people here in the community, the dog lovers who use the park.
So far, the announcement appears to have been a wake-up call. “I’ve heard from more people in the past few days than I have in the past year,” she said on Friday.
The plan now is to hold a meeting on October 19 at 5:30 p.m. at the park. Those who would like to see the park remain viable are urged to attend to help determine if there’s enough commitment to breathe new life into the group and take on the necessary tasks headed into the winter.
Current committee members will attend, Teel said, to explain the various roles and responsibilities that need to be assigned to maintain the park such as day-to-day managers, groundskeepers and volunteers to handle social media.
“This meeting is for those who can commit to playing an active role in managing the park, dedicating approximately six volunteer hours per month,” she said.
In her public appeal, Teel reminds the community of the effort that’s gone into the park with the hope that new supporters will ensure it was worthwhile.
“The Waterbury Unleashed Dog Park took years and countless volunteer hours to be established in our town. We are the envy of our surrounding Vermont towns and are often asked for advice for how to get a park started in their neighborhood,” she wrote. “Don't let this little gem in Waterbury close!”
A volunteer effort from the start
The dog park’s history goes back to 2010 when the idea to find a spot where dogs could be welcome to play off leash gained traction. The town has an ordinance requiring dogs to be on leash at all times and playing off leash at municipal parks isn’t permitted. In 2011, efforts stalled after Tropical Storm Irene hit Waterbury and local volunteer energy focused on disaster recovery.
But by 2015, momentum was back and a site was chosen on property then owned by the village municipality. That changed in 2018 when the village government was dissolved and the Edward Farrar Utility District was created as the municipal entity whose main function is to oversee operation of the municipal water and wastewater operations.
Volunteer labor to build the park came from local residents, high school students, Boy Scouts. Municipal staff provided guidance with the support of local public officials. The park did not use tax dollars for its construction. Grants, events and donations funded the effort and ongoing fundraising has helped maintain it. Volunteers formed a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization called FORWARD (short for “Friends For Waterbury Area Recreation Development”) to manage park finances.
The dog park’s existence does not involve a lease, but rather a memo of understanding that puts the responsibility for its upkeep on the volunteer committee established for that purpose.
Today, the utility district’s Board of Trustees is in the process of looking to hand over ownership of several properties that it inherited from the village – including the 40 acres containing the dog park, ice rink and bike trail access – to the town for long-term ownership.
The 2015 announcement of the grand opening of what was named the “Waterbury Unleashed Dog Park” touted the benefits project proponents saw in adding a dog park to town: “[I]t has been built to increase tourism, improve the quality of life for town residents and promote public health/safety. The park is to be enjoyed by people and dogs, a peaceful place where neighbors can gather to socialize and enjoy healthy activity.”
On Friday, Teel said she sees a glimmer of hope for that vision to continue. Based on feedback she’s received in the past few days, she said she thinks a new cohort of caretakers might emerge. “I have a good feeling that people will step up into these roles,” she said.
And if not, Teel said that closing the park for the winter – when volunteers would normally be committed to regular snow-shoveling and cleaning up – would be the next step with the hope of reviving interest next spring.