(This story was first published in the April 17, 2014 edition of the Vermont Standard.)
By Eric Francis, Standard Correspondent
QUECHEE — Dogs will need to be on leashes when being walked on the Quechee Common under the terms of a revised park ordinance that was adopted recently by the Hartford Select Board.
The board approved a narrow set of changes to both the town’s dog law, which is officially known as the Hartford Dog and Wolf-Hybrid Ordinance, and to the section of the existing Park Ordinance which deals with the presence of dogs in the town’s parks.
Hartford Parks and Recreation Department Director Tad Nunez explained that although both laws were tweaked with the addition of the new language it was really one single concept that was being addressed: Namely that unless there is a specific exception, such as the “dog park” within the town park at Watson Field in West Hartford, then the same leash law that applies anywhere else in town also applies inside of the parks.
The impetus behind the update was both legal, an effort to try and limit the town’s liability if a loose dog were to bite someone in a park, and an issue of atmospherics, Nunez said, telling the board, “There’s something about a dog bounding toward your two-year-old that’s not thrilling.”
With both ordinances now crossreferencing each other, the potential for any grey area of confusion between them should be eliminated, Nunez said, adding that with the new black-and-white clarity in place the town will be freed up this summer to actually expand the spaces officially available for owners to walk and run with their dogs “off leash” to places like Hartford’s town forests and swathes of Kilowatt Park and even some of the common space in the center of Quechee.
“Saying you can’t run your dog except on a leash in the town forest would be over the top,” Nunez said, but he said any designations of new off-leash areas will have to wait until mid-June because there’s a 60-day appeal period during which legal challenges can be filed after any ordinance is adopted or modified.
At the prompting of newly elected selectman Dick Grassi, the board also spent some time at Tuesday night’s meeting discussing the recent rash of heroin busts in Hartford, noting that there were three search warrant executions in downtown White River Junction last week alone that resulted in the arrests of six people.
“You can’t have a conversation anywhere in town these days without hearing about the drug people,” Grassi said, noting that it had just come up minutes beforehand during the discussion of dog walking in Kilowatt Park in Wilder with a resident mentioning she was more concerned about junkies hanging out there than loose dogs.
Pointing out that the Hartford Police department in previous years had three detectives and is now running with only two and three open positions on the force, including an unfilled slot for a School Resource Officer at the high school, Grassi worried that Hartford is trying to stem an epidemic of drug use “with a skeleton crew.”
“We are at best reactive, not proactive,” Grassi argued, saying, “The time is way past now that we address drugs in this community. It tears the fabric of a community apart. I’m not trying to be an alarmist but this is a very, very serious problem,” he noted.
Selectboard Chairman Ken Parker said he was “acutely aware” of the issue and vowed “This community is going to do whatever it takes to stop people from selling drugs… Enough, if you are selling drugs we are going to throw the book at you”; however, he quickly pointed out that the problem is much larger than one town or even the region. “We’re not the only community struggling with this. We’re all in this together. It affects our friends, our families, our neighbors.”
Selectmen Chuck Wooster and Simon Dennis both suggested that the topic be made the focus of a planned public discussion at one of the upcoming selectboard meetings. Wooster said that one of the issues is money and with an eight percent increase in taxes this year and a town-wide decision last year to spend millions on recreation facilities it is not easy to simply hire more police or pay for similar initiatives. “We need to keep in mind what we are trading off here,” Wooster said, “We need to talk about ‘This is the pie and this is how we want to split it’.”