By Bill Kirk
---- — They’ve got the property — a half-acre swath of brush-covered land off High Plain Road near the leaf dump. They’ve got the support — from volunteers, dog-lovers and town officials. And, of course, they have the dogs — all 2,527 of the licensed canines in town that would love to run unleashed around a penned-in playground.
What they don’t have is the $50,000 that will be needed to build it. But they are working on it.
Led by Dr. Tracie Fountas, who owns River Road Veterinary Hospital with her husband, George, a group of volunteers has formed a nonprofit group called Friends of the Andover Dog Park, complete with a website and Facebook page.
At the moment, the group has less than $5,000, Fountas said. And those funds were inherited from the last group working on the dog park. Some money has already been spent on attorney and filing fees as well as a survey of the site, she said.
The group hopes to build on that with a fundraiser in March, said volunteer Christine Zdunczyk of Rennie Drive, who is organizing the event.
“We hope to raise $20,000,” she said. With additional fundraisers, the goal is to start construction on the dog park by sometime next year.
“It all has to do with fundraising,” Fountas said during a recent visit to the site, which is adjacent to the entrance to the Bald Hill Conservation Area, located off High Plain Road in West Andover.
The town donated 3 acres of Conservation Commission land and volunteers cut down a number of trees, leaving several large ones in the middle of what will become the dog park to provide shade to visitors.
As dog park advocates say on their website: “The Andover Dog Park will be a space of approximately a half-acre for our dogs to run and play off leash.
“Our aim is to preserve the natural features and rolling terrain of the land and we will keep a couple of trees to provide shade, including a large white oak tree in the center.”
The group says its goal is to provide “a safe, fun area for dogs to play and owners to mingle.” The area will be completely fenced in and will include a double gate at the entrance area to ensure safety.
Fountas said once final plans come in and the group raises enough money for the project, the funds will be turned over to the town of Andover, which will put the project out to bid under municipal bidding and procurement procedures.
According to Town Manager Reginald “Buzz” Stapczynski, any time anything is built on town land, it has to be done using a specific legal process.
“The inspector general watches these things,” he said. “In the past, municipalities could get away with” avoiding public bidding and procurement laws for groups like this.
“In the old days, things were done like that,” he said. “We don’t allow people to just come in and work on town property.”
The town manager said the one exception may be playgrounds built on school property, where volunteers, overseen by the vendor’s engineers, are often used to erect the structures.
“They do it in a way that conforms with the law,” he said.
In the case of the dog park, the money raised will go toward excavating the site, including preparing it for proper drainage; buying and putting down wood chips, building a fence, and expanding parking at the site, which also serves as the entrance to the 203-acre Bald Hill Conservation area.
Wayne Nader, the town’s animal control officer, said he has watched this project go in fits and starts for 20 years.
“This is the second group to try to raise the money to build it,” said Nader, who has been on the job for 30 years. “The first group petered out.”
He said that when a dog park was initially proposed, town officials weren’t in favor of it.
“The town wasn’t looking to do it until 10 or 15 years ago,” he said. “Then I got support from the town. But then the town ran into money problems and a dog park was not high on the priority list.”
But he said he thinks it’s a worthwhile venture and he is hopeful this group is successful.
“People will go to the dog park to socialize their dogs,” he said.
Plus, he won’t have to give them a ticket for letting their dogs run off-leash.
Currently, there is no place in town, except for private property, where people can let their dogs run off-leash.
Anyone caught walking their dog without a leash can be fined $25 for the first offense and $50 for each subsequent offense. If the dog is unlicensed, it’s another $25 to $50 fine.
Nader said he believes most people in town license their dogs, which costs $12 to $15. The town raised $36,032 in dog license fees in 2012.
But he said he gets complaints “all the time” about people letting their dogs walk off-leash. He said what often happens is that someone walking a local trail will get harassed by a dog or their dog will end up getting attacked by another dog that is off-leash.
Zdunczyk said she’s afraid to let her dog off-leash for fear it might run off and get hit by a car.
“We need to do something,” she said.
Chris Palermo, a dog trainer from Blue Dog Academy on Lupine Road in Andover, said there are lots of places to walk dogs, but “no fenced area to let them romp and play.”
The closest dog park in the area is in Lowell or Derry, N.H.
“Most people walk on trails or go to a friend’s house,” he said.
While some dog parks are open to residents only, the Andover Dog Park would be open to anyone.
For more information on the Andover Dog Park project, visit www.andoverdogparkma.com or check out the Friends of the Dog Park on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/dogfriend/.