HALLOWELL — City officials have locked the gate at the Vaughn Field dog park and are hopeful that it will prompt citizens to take better care of the unsanitary public area in the future.

The decision miffed resident Emily Baker, who said the city did not adequately notify the public that they need to carry trash in and out, or that they are responsible for the park’s cleanliness.

Councilor Michael Frett moved to close the park Monday night after the council’s Property Committee, made up of Frett and councilors Diano Circo and Maureen Aucoin, unanimously recommended closing the park until the spring because owners do not clean up dog excrement. The motion passed unanimously.

“The committee agreed that it should not be the responsibility of Public Works Employees to pick up the dog waste,” Frett said. “It was never conceptualized that it would be a city liability.”

The notion of closing the dog park was met with skepticism from Mayor Mark Walker, who said responsible dog owners would be upset the park would be closed.

“I am a nonvoting member of this council, but I would feel uncomfortable making that vote tonight without any other public hearing or notice that wasn’t specifically on our agenda in any way,” he said. “I think that would be a fairly dramatic decision made with so little input.”

Councilor Maureen Aucoin said she heard complaints from her constituents about the park’s cleanliness. She said the park is designed to be maintained by patrons.

Frett said the closure could prompt citizens to form a group to clean the park. He said he has seen other parks operate under this model and stay clean.

“If citizens are so concerned about it continuing,” he said, “then they should form a citizen group to take responsibility for cleaning it.”

Piles of plastic bags, possibly full of dog waste, are seen behind the recently installed padlock and Do Not Enter sign on the gate of closed Hallowell dog park, seen Wednesday at Vaughan Field in Hallowell. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

The dog park’s condition was brought up in a July discussion about trash cans in city parks. Public works previously provided trash cans at Granite City Park and Vaughn Field, but removed them in July 2018 because they were being misused, according to Buck. He said in July that trash would overflow and create an eyesore at Granite City Park, and the trash can near the dog park at Vaughn Field could be a health hazard.

“We had a trash can (at Vaughn Field) for the dog poop (and) someone’s either not picking up their dog poop or just picking it up with a stick and smearing it all over the trash can,” he said.  “It’s a health issue in a sense.”

In addition, the city’s public works department doesn’t work weekends which increases the likelihood of overflows by the time crews are back on Monday. On Wednesday, Buck said he was pushing for the park’s closure because it was a health hazard for dogs, patrons and city employees. He estimated there were 50 to 100 areas of dog excrement “inside that fenced-in area.”

“I wouldn’t let my dog in there, running around and stepping in other dog’s” excrement, Buck said.

Resident Emily Baker said the park is overgrown with weeds and has a “pile-up” of poop bags, but she said that only happened after the trash can was taken away at the park. She said the trash cans would not usually overflow unless they were not emptied for about a week.

“Any trash can left for a week in a town will experience overflow, especially an active park,” she said.

Baker also refuted the idea that the park should not be maintained by city workers and advocated for better signage at the park displaying the city’s intent.

“Myself, and I’m sure others, would assume that any city park would be maintained by the city,” she said. “If they were creating a carry-in, carry-out policy, I would think that would be posted somewhere in the park. Nothing changed at the parks when they took the trash cans away.”

When asked if closing the park is an adequate way to spur volunteers to clean the park, Baker said it wasn’t. She noted that city officials never told the residents that city workers would not be looking after the park.

“The city stopped maintaining it and did not effectively tell the public (that city workers wouldn’t be cleaning it),” Baker said. “Simply closing it seems like a consequence for something (for which) the public is not accountable.”

Augusta Community Services Director Leif Dahlin said Augusta’s Mill Park dog park is supposed to be maintained by the patrons, but city workers sometimes get stuck with the work.

“There’s an expectation that the patrons will pick up after themselves,” he said. “We go in and try to maintain it the best we can.”

Dahlin said a few “watchdogs” often use “peer pressure” to force neglectful dog owners to clean up after their dogs. He said there have been isolated complaints of unsanitary conditions at the park, but the city has not yet threatened to close the park.

“We haven’t gotten to the to point where we had to close it up,” he said, adding that he understood why Hallowell officials would weigh closing the park.

Hallowell’s Code of Ordinances states in section 6-216 that “no person shall sweep, place or deposit any dirt, soot, ashes, shavings, paper, hair, manure or any vegetables or animal substance or any rubbish, offal or filth, any snow, etc. on or upon any street, sidewalk or public place in the city.” Code violations are usually punished by fines between $50 and $250, but Hallowell police Sgt. Jordan Gaudet said in July that city officers would likely write a summons for violating state laws for littering rather than a city ordinance violation.

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