Pooch Putsch?

If this catfight over a dog park gets any more beastly, it could claw apart city government

Will someone from the City of Miami please toss Melissa Meyer a bone?

At this point it doesn't seem likely. Audrey Eckert, a veteran police officer and animal-rights activist who also is the Coconut Grove Neighborhood Resource Officer, isn't going to do it. Grumbles Eckert: "I have no idea why she's being so evil."

And Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton certainly isn't. "This is a spoiled little brat," he snipes in regard to his constituent Meyer.

What kind of ogre could inspire such loathing? One who simply wants a fence in a central Coconut Grove park moved 44 feet, according to the fair-skinned, red-haired creature herself. A 35-year-old architect with Miami's internationally acclaimed Arquitectonica, Meyer says she just wants her 12-year-old son, 4-year-old daughter, and other children in the area to have the same slice of the Blanche Park pie they once had. That slice shrank dramatically with the creation of a playground for dogs two years ago. The fence in question bisects the blocklong park, leaving a very big space for dogs and a much smaller space for kids. Meyer believes Officer Eckert and lawyer Marc Sarnoff, president of the Center Grove Neighborhood Association, expanded the canine area beyond its planned size in order to take a bite out of that portion of the park favored by children. Three months ago Meyer and several others who live near Blanche Park revived efforts to relocate the partition.

"I just wanted the kids to go back to playing at the park every day like they used to," Meyer explains. "They were there every day before the fence went up. It is important for every neighborhood to have a safe park that kids can walk to by themselves."

The dog park was an elusive dream of Eckert until Ralston Purina offered $30,000 in February 1999 for the transformation of Blanche Park, located at the corner of Shipping Avenue and Virginia Street. Those changes included landscaping, a kiosk featuring the company's logo, water fountains -- two for people and one for pooches -- and a three-foot-high chainlink fence around the perimeter of the dog zone. Some of that money funded a similar romping ground at Kennedy Park in north Coconut Grove.

Fluffy news coverage of the central Grove's dog-park experiment has unleashed a desire among pet owners elsewhere to envision their own perro playgrounds. Eckert has been hounded for information by callers from Brickell, Edgewater, Morningside, Coral Gables, unincorporated Miami-Dade, Weston in Broward County, even Ohio. "The State of Ohio!" she marvels.

So why is Meyer's simple plea to move a fence generating such heat? It could be that dog lovers are a touchy breed, especially when they think their pets' well-being is being threatened. It could also be Meyer's assertion that by greatly reducing the size of the kids' area, the city is engaging in racial discrimination. Meyer is Anglo; her son's father is part black, part Native American. Thus the boy is multiracial, a designation Meyer takes seriously. Six years ago, in fact, she made national news by persuading Miami-Dade County Public Schools to add a "multiracial" category to its paperwork.

"By installing the fence [separating dogs from kids] in the middle of the children's playground ... instead of in its original designated place, thus reducing the size of the playground by half, they have made a conscious effort to exclude a particular group of people from their own neighborhood playground," Meyer declares. "And when you make a conscious effort to exclude a particular group of people from a public space, then you are being discriminatory. So who is being discriminated against? All children who live within walking distance of Blanche Park, the majority being black and Hispanic."

On that topic Commissioner Winton is fit to be tied: "You can quote me: She's full of shit!"

Officer Eckert also is skeptical: "This is my challenge to her: Show me this contingent of kids -- who they must have been hiding in cellars -- who want to use that park. There is no need to expand a kids' park that isn't even used in order to take away from a dog park that is already far too busy."

Blanche Park is three blocks east of McDonald Street, which since the Sixties has represented a de facto border between the predominately black west Grove and central Grove, which is primarily Anglo and Hispanic. Meyer has tried to rally members of the West Grove Homeowners and Tenants Association to her cause. "This dog is not going to get into that fight," says Will Johnson, the association's vice president. As far as his group is concerned, the fence issue should be resolved by the Center Grove Neighborhood Association, the Coconut Grove Village Council, and the Miami City Commission.

Although they cringe at Meyer's injection of racial politics into the feud, other Blanche Park neighbors think the fence indeed is in the wrong place. Among them are Jim and Caroline Cashion, who have a seven-year-old daughter and three dogs. They have lived across from the park for twenty years and were relieved when the city finally began refurbishing what had been a refuge for homeless people and vagrants. The two remember meeting with Officer Eckert several times before the fence went in and agreed on a location about 47 feet east of where it ended up. "I was furious," recalls Caroline, a manager at Grove Key Marina. "I said, “Jimmy, they didn't put the fence in where they said it was going to go.'"

The Cashions like the dog park but object to its size. "We want to share," says Jim, a 56-year-old carpenter. "But we want to put the fence back where it was originally supposed to go." In explaining why it has taken two years to mount the effort, he says he tried to bring the "mistake" to Miami parks and recreation department director Albert Ruder. "It fell on deaf ears," he complains. "You couldn't talk to anybody." When they spoke to Eckert about moving the fence, Caroline adds, "She said, “It's never going to happen. For every parent you get, I'll have ten dog owners.' I was totally floored. I could not believe she said that."

Where does Eckert think the fence was supposed to go? "Right where the damn fence is!" she barks from behind her desk at the North/East Coconut Grove Neighborhood Enhancement Team Service Center. When contacted at his downtown office, parks director Ruder agreed with that assessment and offered to dig out a site plan to confirm the fence location, a document that would definitively settle the controversy. Later, however, he conceded that such a plan doesn't exist.

But at New Times's request, Eckert shed some light on the matter, swiftly pulling from her own dog-park files a sketch of the fence included in a three-page estimate submitted in January 1999 by the Warren Fence Company, which installed the dark green, vinyl-coated barrier. The sketch indicates that the length of the dog park -- from street corner to disputed fence -- was to be 186 feet. But today the dog area is longer than that. Using a tape measure, Jim Cashion determined it to be 216 feet 2 inches. He calculates the dogs annexed a full 47 feet of the kids' area.

Winton doesn't want to hear about it, no matter what the original plan might have been. "These are goddamn Johnny-come-latelies," the commissioner gripes. "The fence works just fine where it is. There's no reason to move the damn fence. I'm not going to move the fence an inch. My view is: Go to another park if that one's not big enough."

How about moving the fence just to hush up Meyer and her cohorts?

Winton: "There are a lot of important things to do in this city, and putting up with Melissa Meyer is not one of them."

Eckert: "They want 44 feet today. What's it going to be tomorrow?"

With all the snarling going on, resolution of the dog-park imbroglio may fall to Assistant City Manager Frank Rollason. He's witnessed such battles before. "This is a neighborhood pissing match," he observes. He too tried to settle the matter with a parks department site plan. "One doesn't exist," he confirms. But after analyzing the situation he concludes that moving the fence wouldn't be such a big deal. "I don't think we're going to get big squawks from Purina," he shrugs.

So if anyone is going to be tossing Meyer a bone, it could be Rollason. He is in charge of plans to replace the controversial fence with a higher one and plant a hedge along it. (It's a foot shorter than it was supposed to be.) In other words if it's going to be moved, now is the time. "Absolutely," Rollason says. "It really doesn't make a difference to me where that fence is, but I don't want to raise it to 4 feet now and then have to go back and move it 44 feet."

Meyer and the Cashions have requested that their fence-relocation proposal be placed on the June 14 Miami City Commission agenda. In the meantime Meyer is polling residents of central Grove to prove she's not just howling at the moon.

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