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The price of popularity

New fees at a popular dog park threaten to sink the nonprofit that founded it

Photo: Jeff Gore, License: N/A, Created: 2010:10:21 20:02:20

Jeff Gore

Pay to Play: Tom Nowicki and his dog, Dexter, visit Fleet Peeples Park every morning

Parks director John Holland says that costs have indeed risen, though not outside of normal expectations. Holland calculates the “direct” costs of the park at about $18,000 – roughly three tenths of 1 percent of his department’s $7.1 million dollar budget. Fleet Peeples is the only park in the city with a fenced-in area designated for dogs and one of a few in the state with lakefront access. In December, it will become the only public dog park in Central Florida to charge an 
admission fee.

Nowicki estimates that the Friends group has put more than $100,000 into the park since the group’s inception. “Nothing has changed on our end, except that we’ve taken better care of the park,” he says. He points out that potentially harmful bacteria levels in Lake Baldwin declined between 2005 and 2008, despite all the dogs swimming in 
the lake.

Dillaha won’t go as far to say that the group hasn’t taken good care of the park; rather, her issue with the park as a free space seems to stem from a view that the parks are obligated to the city, not vice versa. “Historically, [Fleet Peeples Park] was rented out for group functions, and picnics; it actually used to generate revenue,” she says. “It wasn’t a lot of revenue, but at least it was in the black.”

The city estimates that fees at Fleet Peeples Park will bring the city $43,000 annually. Confusing the issue, though, is the fact that the city will have to hire staff to enforce the fees. Holland says the city will spend $60,000 to employ two part-time park officials whose primary responsibility will be to make sure that dogs at the off-leash side of Fleet Peeples Park are properly registered and vaccinated.

Even more confusing is the staggering amount of attention Winter Park has given to this issue. The city commission and the parks and recreation commission have been arguably obsessed with Fleet Peeples Park and its Friends – over the past two years, officials on both boards have debated the park’s size, shape, attendance, signage, even its rationale for existence. “We’ve been going through an absolute nightmare,” Womble says. “Every meeting there was a piece of evidence, a reason to close it.”

And it wasn’t just the park that the commission seemed to obsess over, but the dogs themselves. In July, a proposed city pet ordinance tried to ban dogs altogether from three city parks. “At what point do we give this up and talk about something else?” Winter Park Mayor Ken Bradley asked at a city commission meeting at the time.

Members of the Friends nonprofit generally point to three women as the source of their woes: Commissioner Dillaha, parks board member Bonnie Jackson and former parks board member Kim Allen. All three assumed office in 2008, the year to which the Friends members trace their struggle. Jackson could not be reached for comment, and Allen would not speak on the record. Dog owners, however, were much less guarded about their feelings. “I frankly think [Beth Dillaha] is motivated by a pathological hatred of dogs,” says Joseph Brock, a Winter Park attorney and a board member of the Friends nonprofit.

Dillaha calls the charges ridiculous. “I’ve had dogs all my life growing up,” she says. Dillaha has indicated that she’ll be stepping down from the commission in March when elections are held – which is one reason the Friends of Fleet Peeples hasn’t given up 
hope just yet.

Sandy Womble says she is “absolutely” looking forward to the day that Dillaha leaves office, when perhaps the spotlight will finally be taken off of dogs. “There are so many more important issues out there,” she says.

The chairman of the Friends, John Fishback, says that in the meantime, he doesn’t encourage a boycott of the park.

Another park regular, Sue Burk, agrees. “We’ll still show up,” she says. “But that doesn’t make it right.”

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