Liability concerns temporarily shutter Amherst dog park

  • Yukon Potato, aka Yuki SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Thursday, March 16, 2023

AMHERST — Nearly every day since the Amherst Dog Park opened last July, Yuki, a 3-year-old German shorthaired pointer, has come to the Old Belchertown Road site, usually carrying a red rubber ball on his journey.

“He loves to see his dog friends at the park, but mostly he’s focused on playing fetch,” says Sara Maguire, Yuki’s owner, who calls her dog high-energy and in need of hours of outdoor exercise.

“He’ll happily stay there for over an hour running around with his ball,” Maguire said, “chasing bugs in the summer, and rolling in the dirt and mud, because he knows when he gets dirty he gets sprayed with the hose when he gets home, and he is also obsessed with the hose.”

This month, though, with the mild winter being replaced by snow and ice, the dog park that had been open daily from dawn to dusk has been padlocked, a decision made by the town’s Department of Public Works. This has meant Yuki, whose full name is Yukon Potato, has not been getting his dog park fix, and prompted Maguire to reach out to the Town Council and Town Hall with concerns.

“He was very sad and confused why we couldn’t go inside,” Maguire wrote in her letter. “There was also a car in the parking lot who had to turn away and an owner with their dog passing by on the sidewalk who was disappointed the park was closed. Many people in the community rely on the park to exercise their dog, especially when the weather isn’t ideal.”

For the town, there was always going to have to be a time that the site would close.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said this week that the facility was never intended to be year-round, because clearing the paths wouldn’t always be possible, meaning that they would not be accessible or entirely safe. “If we open it, we have to have a certain level of safety,” Bockelman said.

Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek said the DPW manages the dog park day to day, with one of its duties being removal of snow and ice.

“The DPW couldn’t guarantee safe passage through the gated system and the ADA walkways,” Ziomek said. “The decision was made to close temporarily until we get through these snowstorms.”

On the town website Thursday, information stated that the dog park is closed due to snow, ice and mud. The website also promised updates would be posted regularly, though suggested that the site is fragile, due to the grass areas where dogs play.

“To prevent further damage, it will remain closed until the saturated soils have drained sufficiently,” the post states. “The park will reopen when staff determine it is safe to do so.”

Julie Hammond is another Amherst dog owner who has depended on the site and, like Maguire, found it locked up, and no signs indicating the reason.

“Many dog parents are very upset and frustrated over this and are currently organizing to protest,” Hammond said.

She has reached out to Friends of the Amherst Dog Park, which provides support for the facility, to see what can be done.

Maguire said her email suggested that, instead of closing, a sign be put up advising that use of the park is at a person’s own risk during bad weather conditions, rather than forcing people to use public places that pose even greater risks, such as the non-maintained trails at Amethyst Brook Conservation Area that have long been used by dog walkers.

“No matter where we go, the weather is the same and often times the trails are worse because of icy roots sticking up and hills,” Maguire wrote. “In these cases, the park is a lot safer than the other options available.”

“Please take the warning / liability sign idea into consideration when deciding if the park should be closed or not,” Maguire wrote.

By the third week of March, the hope in Amherst is that the dog park reopens, Ziomek said. “It’s really challenging for the DPW, and really challenging from a liability standpoint,” Ziomek said. “We will be open as soon as practical.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.