In 2003, When Gerry Connolly was running to be Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, his opponent criticized him for spending Park Authority money to build dog parks in the county. It was the wrong line of attack.
Connolly said there are an estimated 250,000 dogs in Fairfax County. There are no statistics on the number of dog lovers, but the demand for more dog parks continues unabated. On April 22, Grist Mill Dog Park, the county’s seventh and Mount Vernon’s first off-leash dog area, was officially opened by Connolly, Mount Vernon Supervisor Gerry Hyland, Mount Vernon Park Authority Board Member Gil McCutcheon, Michael Kane, Director of the Fairfax County Park Authority and other county officials. Oblivious to the day’s rain showers and dark clouds, dogs of every shape and size raced around the crushed stone of the fenced-in, one acre lot in Grist Mill Park, while humans, unbound by leashes, ate cake, tossed Frisbees or tennis balls and socialized with one another.
A behavior exhibited by many of the humans was to approach Mimi Pollow, the president of the Mount Vernon Dog Opportunity Group (DOG) to shake hands and thank her for all the effort she and her group had made to raise money for the park. The Park Authority requires that every dog park must have a sponsoring group of community members. Mount Vernon’s DOG was created five years ago. Pollow said that the more than 200 people on its mailing list raised $11 thousand through direct mail solicitations, the sale of “Don’t Poop Here” signs, doggie Christmas cards, a Halloween party, and a Christmas Howliday parade. The county provided the remainder of the approximately $40 thousand needed to build the park. This paid for removing most of the trees that had covered the site, grading the land to allow water run-off, building a chain link fence around the property, and covering the ground with six inches of crushed blue stone. The stone soaks up water, eliminating mud on rainy days, and requires far less maintenance than grass.
Now that the park has been built, responsibility for its upkeep will rest with DOG and the park’s users. The park has been open unofficially for several weeks. Pollow says she has already seen a sense of community ownership develop around it. “Everybody wants to make this succeed,” she said. People leave balls and water dishes for others to use and keep the poop bag dispenser full of plastic bags. This is as it should be, said Chris Robichaux, the president of Mason District DOG, which acted as mentor to Mount Vernon DOG. He said that the community group must monitor its park and make sure that it is kept clean. However, it is usually the users, whether affiliated with DOG or not, that police themselves. “It’s peer pressure,” he said. “People understand the need to exercise your dogs off-leash and it’s illegal in the county. [The dog parks] are a really good combination of park authority, community and animal control coming together.”
“DOGS ENJOY each other’s company,” said Connolly. He added that when he was a district supervisor in the 1990’s, “People would complain… that it was illegal everywhere in the county to run your dog off-leash … There’s huge demand for facilities to allow dogs and owners to exercise [but] we didn’t want folks to do that in an uncontrolled way. There needed to be structured areas … Thus began the dog park movement.” The county’s first dog park was opened in 2000. Now, says Connolly, “Most places that don’t have dog parks want dog parks.”
“I’m an excited local dog owner,” said Debra Nelson, who had been enthusiastically thanking Pollow. “I don’t like to see dogs on leashes … I like to see dogs running free.” Nelson said she plans to visit the park once a week. “If my dog were younger it would be more often. But she’s nine. And my husband is overprotective.”
As the opening celebration slowly dwindled to a close, Pollow surveyed the scene. Dogs of all sizes roamed the lot in tail-wagging packs. Many converged around one woman who threw tennis ball after tennis ball from a pile at her feet that was constantly replenished by other people’s dogs. “[The park] is also good for kids, because they get to interact with dogs,” Pollow observed. “But it’s mostly good for dogs.” Later, she said in conversation, “Dogs deserve to be with other dogs.”