Jan Wong: vicious turf wars at dog parks across Toronto have cost taxpayers a fortune

Jan Wong: vicious turf wars at dog parks across Toronto have cost taxpayers a fortune

The Fury Unleashed
(Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images)

Once upon a time, happiness reigned in Ledbury Park, a 1.6-hectare expanse of green tucked into a residential area west of Avenue Road and north of Lawrence. Then, in the late 1990s, the city hired the prestigious firm Shim-Sutcliffe Architects to transform the space into a $2.5-million landscaped gem. Trouble started when one corner of the park morphed into an informal dog playground, where owners removed leashes and let pets run free. As real estate prices soared around Ledbury Park, people tore down the area’s modest brick bungalows and replaced them with $2-million custom homes. A half-dozen of them backed onto the informal dog park.

Six years ago, the homeowners began complaining to the city about noise—chiefly barking (by pets) and shouting (by owners). At the same time, the dog owners wanted more: a formal off-leash enclosure. In July 2007, the city, which had been approving dog parks on an ad hoc basis, adopted a new off-leash policy, including criteria for proposed sites. It also decreed that, henceforth, it would no longer deal with individuals on dog-related matters, only with associations.

Ta-dah! The Ledbury Park Dog Owners’ Association was born, and it quickly applied for an off-leash park on the patch that bordered those new homes. The city approved the dog park in September 2008. Fourteen months later, in December 2009, a chain link fence went up. The fence, which had a double-gated buffer zone so that owners could unleash their dogs in an enclosed area before setting them free, cost taxpayers $40,000.

According to Rob Andrusevich, the PR manager for Parks, Forestry and Recreation, off-leash dog parks cost the city an average of $250,000 each—for fencing, irrigation, drainage and surface material. Toronto currently has 59 of them, typically fenced-in zones within existing parks. Five more are in the planning stages. Last year, Andrusevich’s department received applications from 40 dog owners’ associations, all eager for their own fenced-in area in which to play fetch and scoop poop. The city is also considering establishing “courtesy hours” in some parks, so that owners can let dogs run free early in the morning and after nine o’clock at night.

Ledbury Park residents say that once the new fence was installed, traffic to the dog park soared—both vehicular and four-legged. Paid dog walkers, hauling half a dozen animals, visited throughout the day. Clang, clang, clang went the double metal gates, from dawn until late into the night.

Over the next two years, Karen Stintz, the city councillor for the area, presided over several rancorous community meetings. “When I was elected in 2003, I could never have guessed the amount of time and energy dog issues would take,” Stintz told a journalist in Dog Dazed, a wry documentary about the soaring popularity of dog ownership in North America. (Stintz didn’t respond to my request for an interview.)

Anti–dog park residents say they were mocked at the meetings, and that dog owners sometimes waved sarcastically into their backyards or flipped them the bird. One woman, who still fears retaliation and asked not to be identified, was mooned—or more precisely, half-mooned. “He didn’t pull his pants completely down,” she says, “just halfway down.”

Lynn Fisher, an artist whose custom-built house backed onto the dog park, says the hostility and noise were unbearable. When she reported as much at one of the public meetings, a woman sitting nearby replied, “So move.” Fisher is herself pro-dog. Before moving to Canada from South Africa, she had owned a fox terrier, a rescue mongrel, a boxer and a Labrador retriever. But the park was driving her nuts. “Everyone was vicious. It ruined our lives. We couldn’t open our windows. We couldn’t eat on our deck. All we heard were the dogs, or the owners yelling at their dogs.” Stintz visited Fisher’s house and witnessed the problem first-hand. The councillor proposed moving the off-leash section to another area of the park, but the dog owners objected. In July 2011, 18 months after the fence went up, the city announced it was coming down.

By then, dog park or no dog park, Fisher had had enough. She and her husband, Ian, sold their dream house and bought a condo downtown. Just as they were packing up to move, someone left a parting gift on their front steps: a pile of dog poop.

Meanwhile, the Ledbury Dog Owners’ Association mobilized to reinstate the off-leash area. They enlisted the help of a lawyer, Fred Myers, who lived a few blocks away and owned a goldendoodle named Lyla. An $850-an-hour partner at the blue-chip law firm Goodmans, Myers offered his expertise pro bono. Under his guidance, the association filed an appeal with the city. When the city rejected the appeal, saying it had already made its decision, the association requested and won a judicial review from Ontario Divisional Court. Last fall, a three-judge panel reviewed the city’s decision and ruled against the dog owners: there would be no official off-leash area in Ledbury Park. Myers estimates he spent 150 hours on the file. The dog owners’ association was charged $15,000 in court costs. The city, which was represented by staff lawyers, spent $43,215.

Busy dog parks and quiet residential homes can’t coexist peacefully. The Ledbury Park off-leash area, a pilot project for the city, was doomed from the start. Since its failure, Toronto has amended its policy to ensure dog-run areas no longer abut houses.

I think an off-leash dog park is a privilege, not a right. We don’t have enough green space for humans as it is. Toronto had 250,000 dogs in 2007, the most recent year for which data is available. The human population has grown 10 per cent since then, so it’s safe to assume the dog population has gone up as well. (In the U.S., as boomers age and millennials delay starting families, the number of households with dogs, 43 million, has surpassed the number with children, 38 million.)

Let’s keep some major existing off-leash zones available—at Sunnybrook, High Park and Cherry Beach, for instance, where they’re far removed from neighbouring houses. But any new off-leash areas—especially downtown, where the demand is highest—should be created by private developers on their own land. Dog parks are quickly becoming a highly marketable amenity. Want to lure buyers for condos? Besides exercise rooms and rooftop barbecues, offer on-site dog runs.