JPA discusses controversial plan for dog run at historic First Church burial ground

     The Jamaica Pond Association (JPA) held its regular monthly meeting last Monday, April 3.

     Chair Kay Mathew and fellow members Rosemary Jones, Jasmine Crafts, Tony Dreyfus, Mara Pitts, Peter Steiger, Michael Reiskind, Franklyn Salimbene, Nancy Mazonson, Barry Schwartz, Michael Frank, Mark Zanger, Kevin Moloney, and Martin Thomson were in attendance.

     In addition, District 6 City Councillor Kendra Lara was on hand for the meeting.

     The principal discussion of the evening concerned the controversial proposal to install a dog run in a section of the historic burial ground of the First Church Unitarian Universalist. The church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is included in the Monument Square Historic District.

     Dennis O’Brien, the co-chair of the church’s governing board, presented the details of the proposal.

     “This initially will be limited to a six-month pilot proposal,” said O’Brien. “It will consist of a 60 x 90 foot area of the burial ground, to be fenced-in with a four-foot, wire-coated fence, with access only for members of a dog group who have gone through an orientation and who have agreed to abide by a set of rules and conduct.”

     He noted that the dog run area will be placed 10 feet away from the nearest burial markers and that use of the area will be limited to no more than five dogs at a time. The enclosure will be open for three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening.  

     “Dogs must be removed if they are barking and disturbing the neighbors,” said O’Brien, who also said that the gate to the enclosure will be locked when the dog run is not in use. “Dog owners who violate the procedure will be banned.”

     O’Brien said that permission from the Mass. Historical Commission (MHC) will be required for the pilot program and that at the end of the six-month trial period, if the church intends to make it a permanent feature of its burial ground, it will have to reapply again to the MHC.

     O’Brien noted that cemeteries in Brookline and the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., contain off-leash dog parks. However, according to the Congressional Cemetery (which is 35 acres) web site, it derives one-quarter of its operating income from dog walking members, which pays for the cost of its grounds maintenance contracts.

     In addition, according to the web site, “The presence of dog walkers at almost every hour of the day constitutes a de facto on site patrol all day long. With watch dog eyes and ears on duty, Congressional is mostly free and clear of riff raff and vandals.”

     However, the dog run at the First Church cemetery will be free-of-charge and will only operate for six hours during the daylight hours.

     O’Brien also said that enforcement of the rules will rest with the dog owners themselves. In response to a question later from a member of the association, he said that neighbors or others who have complaints will have to send an email to a contact person at the church, who in turn will notify the dog walkers’ group.

     “This has been a fairly-fraught issue with the neighbors,” Mathew acknowledged prior to opening-up the discussion.

     “My concern about that list (referring to a letter signed by 84 residents of JP in favor of the dog park) is that very few actual abutters are listed,” said Mazonson. “Are we really hearing from the people who will be most impacted by those dogs?”

     O’Brien said the church conducted “listening sessions and opinion was evenly-divided, pro and con. We did not get a clear delineation one way or another based on geography.”

     R.J. Cross of 811 Centre St., who was one of those who signed the letter, spoke in favor of the proposal.

     Salimbene, who suggested that the opening hour in the morning should be no earlier than 7:00 and that the closing hour should be no later than 6:00 in the evening, also made another recommendation.

     “Basically, what you’re suggesting is for the dog owners to police themselves, but it would seem to me that if this is going to work to the benefit of everybody, the church should consider that the committee that is going to enforce the rules should include an abutter,” said Salimbene. “This would be a more-inclusive approach by allowing all of the interested parties to have a seat at the table.”

     “That’s an excellent idea,” said O’Brien.

     “When I first heard about this, my initial reaction was that this is a bizarre request,” said Frank, “but that being said, if the church is into it, and if the historical commission would allow it, I will not stand in the way.

     “But it will take a lot of energy to police this and it will be very difficult to limit it to a small group,” Frank continued. “I would rather see the effort be used to pressure the city and the DCR to create some dog parks. I would rather see the city or the state step up and do this.”

     Resident Bob Mathews of 26 Holbrook St. offered his point-of-view.

     “The suggested size of a dog park is 1/2 of an acre, but this would be only a fraction of that,” Mathews said.. “Yes, we need a dog park, but a more appropriate and larger area in the Jamaica Pond area would be much more appropriate for a dog park. There are plenty of areas that are potential sites for a dog park.”

     Association member Moloney made clear his opposition to the proposal.

     “As a dog owner all my life, using a cemetery as a dog park to me is really inappropriate,” said Moloney, who noted that other cemeteries in the area prohibit dogs, even if on leashes. “Nearby neighbors should not have to put up with loud talking and dogs barking in the morning and evening hours.”

     Andrew Raynor, a Dunster Rd. resident for 33 years, one of the organizers of the project, spoke in favor of the proposal.

     “The most important thing I want to say is that a large number of people still want to be heard on this,” said Raynor. “Two of our people in our organizing committee are abutters and only one person on Holbrook St. is opposed to this. There also is one resident on Eliot St. who is opposed. There are many of us who have dogs whose needs will not be met by a dog park opening on the other side of Jamaica Pond (referring to a proposal by the city to open a dog park at Flaherty Park) and the church is trying to meet our needs.”

     Raynor also noted that the cemeteries that ban dogs are active cemeteries. “Nobody has been buried in this cemetery for 180 years,” he said.

     Another dog owner, who said he has had a dog for 10 years and has been a resident for 40 years, said, “The size of the dog park here is not appropriate for a large dog and should be limited to very, very small dogs at best.”

     Resident Jack Wellman said the present proposal, “is a six-month proposal, an attempt to meet the needs of an important and respected segment of Jamaica Plain residents. I think we need to be willing to take the step of a trial. It will build a better community.”

     However, another area resident expressed vehement opposition to the proposal.

     “The church needs to know that the opposition extends way beyond the abutters on Holbrook and Eliot Sts.,” she said. “An historic burial ground is no place for a dog park and should be treated with dignity and respect.”

     Councillor Lara also jumped into the discussion and presented the association with some new information about the steps the city is taking to open dog parks.

     “This is a conversation the city has been having non-stop about dog parks,” Lara said. “The Friends of JP Dog Parks have been working on this for 20 years and I’m incredibly supportive of it.

     “An off-leash dog park has been approved for JP at Flaherty Playground near Brookside Ave. That’s newly-approved, but how much weight do we give to abutters in the community process? Abutters at Flaherty Playground are fighting this tooth-and-nail. On the other hand, JP has the highest concentration of dog ownership of any neighborhood in the entire city,” Lara continued. “Nobody wants a dog park anywhere near them and at some point we have to acknowledge that we will need more than one because neighbors have a legitimate concern that their neighborhood will become a destination unless we have more than one dog park.”

     Lara informed the association that Mayor Wu’s office has identified 261 city-owned lots that are either too small or too awkwardly-shaped for development that potentially could be used as off-leash dog parks.

     “We know that we need more than one and if we have just one in a neighborhood, it will be oversaturated. It absolutely is something we are working on. There already is one dog park approved for JP and we are working to get more,” Lara continued, though noting that the state will be of no help because, “DCR has been against the idea of dog parks for years.”

     O’Brien asked the JPA members not to take a vote until May when more residents, both pro and con, can be heard from.

     “There’s nothing imminent that’s going to happen because the congregation will not be meeting until June,” O’Brien said. “In addition, there must be the development of the code of conduct.”

     In the end, the association took no vote on the matter.

     Turning to another hot topic of discussion on the agenda, Lara acknowledged that “there will be a proper community process” regarding the proposed two-way bike lane for Eliot St. The association discussed the matter at a recent meeting and members expressed opposition to using Eliot St. as a cut-through bike-path to connect Centre St. to the Jamaicaway.

     Salimbene, a resident of Eliot St. who also is a cyclist, told the association, “The City Transportation Dept. has been slow in getting word out to the community and has not held meetings in a group setting.

     “I’m opposed to the bike lane because there are better alternatives that are safer to connect the monument to the pond,” Salimbene said. “Everyone would agree that increasing the opportunity for people to cycle is important for many reasons. I and others want to work with the city to come up with a safe plan that realistically connects the different bike lanes that are being created by the city.”

     Salimbene noted the lack of width of the proposed bike lane and that the turn for motor vehicles where Eliot St. meets the Jamaicaway would impinge on the bike lane. He also noted that many of the driveways on Elliot St. are blind driveways that will present safety issues for bicyclists. He further pointed out that the delivery vehicles and trash trucks that use the street will pose additional hazards.

     He instead proposed a bikeway on Myrtle St., thereby connecting it with the bike lane on Green St., to make for a direct connection between the Southwest Corridor and Pond St. and the Jamaicaway.

     Councillor Lara reiterated that there will be an opportunity for community meetings and input before the proposal is finalized.

     JPA member Dreyfuss voiced his opinion strongly in favor of the Eliot St. bike lane.

     “Everything that Franklyn said is valid,” said Dreyfus.”Will this change Eliot St., one of the  most beautiful streets in JP? Yes, a little bit. Will it irritate the residents? Yes.

     “But those residents have enjoyed a tremendous benefit from the beauty of their street and they can absorb a little ‘hit’ to what is working for them now. I think that accepting some sacrifice on your street and in your neighborhood is something we all have to be prepared to do,” Dreyfus continued, referencing the exigencies of the climate crisis and the need to remove cars from the road. “If it means a little bit of sacrifice, we should embrace them.”

     Joshua Dankoff, a Holbrook St. resident, who said he presently rides on Eliot St. with his children to the Curley school, told the association, “I am absolutely in favor of this bike lane. Contraflow bike lanes are safe and I say ‘Yes’ to both Myrtle and Eliot.”

     The members then discussed the possibility of using the Curley House for in-person meetings, perhaps starting in June, together with hybrid Zoom meetings.

     Members generally were in favor of the idea, though the issue of cost still has to be addressed, as well as the technical hurdles for conducting a hybrid meeting successfully.

            Martin discussed the upcoming annual meeting in June, telling his fellow members that they need to convene a nominating committee 60 days prior to the meeting, which then would prepare a slate of candidates 30 days before the annual meeting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *