Once Olympia had a dog park. It had a short life — from the fall of 2010 to the spring of 2013. The off-leash dog area at Sunrise Park on Olympia’s west side was just an acre of space but it produced something much bigger.
On any given day, it hosted people of all ages and abilities who loved dogs; some of them didn’t even own dogs. A community formed of several hundred people who loved the space and visited it regularly. My family and my dog were part of that community.
But the park was poorly sited; no buffer existed between the dogs’ space and people’s backyards — on two sides, it shared a fence with the neighboring lots. Less than 10 households became committed to moving the dog park from their neighborhood.
This group was persistent, speaking out at Olympia City Council meetings regularly for more than half a year. Eventually the fence came down and the dog park was gone. The community that gathered at the park is gone now, too. Was it right or wrong that a relatively small but organized group of people lobbied for and won a decision that affected a much larger group?
I wanted to find out.
The first public meeting I went to crackled with accusations and blame. The next meeting I attended was the citizens’ task force on the dog park, a group meant to balance both sides’ perspectives. It was less contentious but no less animated.
I joined this group. The mission of the task force was to find an alternative site. The city committed $100,000 to establish it. But in the end, the only dog park in town closed. And, still, more than two years later, there is no dog park in Olympia and no organized lobby of dog park activists left standing. Nevertheless, I received some unexpected gifts and lessons from this experience.
One: I spent nine months sitting around a table with a group of people whose views were very different from mine. Compared with larger political issues, this was such a small thing. But the arguments were often as hyperbolic as any debate on the national agenda.
Two: Over time, I learned how to sit at the table among people I disagreed with and respectfully speak my truth in such a way that we could remain sitting at the table together. I learned how long it takes to build that kind of trust, and that it requires just that — meeting face-to-face, getting to know each other, sitting at the table together.
Three: I learned that many of these people were extraordinarily thoughtful — and they had good reason to contest the dog park. The city’s own feasibility study recommended a buffer of at least 150 feet between a dog park and the nearest residence.
Opponents also argued that the predevelopment notice period was abbreviated, making it nearly impossible for them to comment. They, too, were learning about the democratic process.
I found that I really did respect these people. And when the City Council voted to close the park, we parted friends; we’d fought the good fight together, even though we were on opposing sides.
The best gift: What I learned most from this task force was how tremendously difficult true democracy is. Constructive dialogue about what goes on where we live is hard, and it takes a great deal of work ... and a real love for us humans, as difficult and irrational as we can be.
I also learned that mistakes happen. What’s important is that we learn from them.
Now, in 2016, why is there still no dog park? I fear that it’s a result of city officials’ sustained heartburn about this conflict and the fallout from mistakes made in the initial site selection.
To the city of Olympia, I’d say the negotiation of diverse interests is the heart of the democratic process, and it’s the role of government to facilitate that process. Now — with the adoption of the 2016 Parks, Arts, and Recreation Plan — it’s time to have these conversations again and to, finally, find a place where dogs can run free and the neighbors can still sleep in on Saturday mornings.
Rachel Burke, a state employee and resident of Olympia, is a member of The Olympian’s 2016 Board of Contributors. She can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.