As it turns out, the people who have spent years pleading with the Hernando County Commission to open a park where dogs are welcome may have been barking up the wrong tree.
Instead of presenting petitions, writing letters and listening to the election-year lip service that politicians have given this popular idea, dog lovers could have taken matters into their own hands, which is exactly what the Spring Hill Central Rotary Club has done.
The community service organization has offered to help the county Parks and Recreation Department pay for an 8-acre public park in a neighborhood south of Northcliffe and west of Mariner boulevards in Spring Hill. The park proposal includes an athletic field, basketball courts and a children's playground.
But, recognizing the need of many county residents, the Rotary Club also wants the park to include a dog run. If approved, the first park in the county where dogs would be allowed could be open in 2006.
The county parks director has recommended before that the commission address the issue. The last time it was seriously discussed was almost six years ago, when there was a proposal to put dog runs at two existing county parks, one in Istachatta and the other near Hernando Beach. That initiative died in a 3-2 commission vote after concerns were raised about the cost and how to enforce rules, which included keeping dogs on leashes, requiring that they be licensed and vaccinated, and that owners clean up after them.
Those concerns must be addressed, and the county animal services officer and parks director have both expressed their willingness to try. However, they also acknowledge that success of a dog park will depend on the owners acting responsibly. They must monitor their pets and respect the wishes of other park visitors who may not share their love of dogs, or appreciate the enjoyment they receive from a long-awaited romp outdoors.
Hernando County is behind the times in this regard. Every county in this region of Florida has at least one public park where owners can bring their dogs, which benefit from the exercise and socialization with other dogs.
Last week, the commission committed $50,000 in park impact fees toward the Rotary Club project. Compared with its longstanding complacency on similar proposals, that is a huge step in the right direction.
Critics of accommodating dogs in public parks have complained that their taxes should not be spent for services they don't use. That is a hollow argument. Many residents do not directly benefit from expenditures on other services, such as athletic fields, libraries, public transit or even schools. But those services clearly contribute to a better quality of life for the community as a whole, and therefore are worthwhile.
There are more than 6,000 licensed dogs in the county and their tax-paying owners deserve as much consideration as boaters, ball players and fishermen, all of who benefit from tax expenditures at public parks.
A park with a dog run is a project that is long overdue. Residents who favor the plan should capitalize on the Rotary Club's momentum by making their wishes known to the County Commission when public hearings are held to discuss the park's design and funding.