2022 | Development

Bethesda dog park plans stalled after neighbors’ pushback

Elrich opposed to Norwood site, directs Parks Department to look elsewhere

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Plans for a new dog park in downtown Bethesda are likely to be on hold for at least two years after neighbors shared their concerns with county leaders.

In a rare move, County Executive Marc Elrich focused on $500,000 earmarked for the project — which would have included an 18,000-square-foot facility — when he suggested cuts from the county Parks Department’s construction budget.

It was the only specific project he mentioned, according to Parks Department leaders. Otherwise, Elrich asked for about $19 million in reductions to the budget over the next six years.

Usually, the Parks Department staff can choose what projects need to be cut or delayed, but in this case, Elrich’s directive prevented the department from using the money for at least two years.

Eventually, a County Council committee restored the money for Fiscal Year 2023, but agreed it should be used for other projects, not the dog park.

“I was more than happy to delay this because it’s kind of indicative of the way Park and Planning has been working, with minimal community input,” Elrich said this week. “So, it’s a happy outcome. We’ll find another place for the dog park because we’re not saying there shouldn’t be dog parks.”

In May 2021, the Montgomery County Planning Board held a public hearing about the project, during which about 30 residents testified.

The decision came after eight months of outreach, Parks Department Director Mike Riley said. That included a large meeting with 120 participants, a town hall forum and a survey.

Riley acknowledged there was notable opposition to the location — including about 55% of respondents to the survey — and said it wasn’t a “perfect” spot. But, of the handful of options considered, the Norwood location met the most criteria.

The Parks Department owns the 17-acre park, cutting costs dramatically. It’s in a central location, accessible to a wide range of people, Riley said.

He said the neighbors who oppose the location are generally more organized because of their involvement in groups like homeowners’ associations.

Other people who would benefit from the park, including people who live nearby but not directly next to the location, wouldn’t have such a unified voice, which can make the results of surveys and advocacy seem lopsided, Riley said.

The people who advocated against the park largely objected to its location within Norwood. It would have taken space that is a large open area.

Riley said he “wasn’t persuaded” by the argument that “we were taking away something that’s irreplaceable” because there are several other open lawn areas. Last year, planners said the park would take about a half-acre from the 8 acres of available open space in the park.

Other complaints during the hearing last year included:

• Noise from barking dogs
• Smell of dog waste
• Some of the open space in the park is unusable due to the terrain, and the dog park area is one of the areas that is usable
• Cost
• Replacing natural grass with artificial turf or other materials for the floor of the park
• Proximity to the toddler park
• Not enough parking space.

The Planning Board approved plans for the park in a unanimous vote right after the public hearing in May.

But when Elrich released his recommended six-year capital budget in January, he directed the Parks Department to spend the next two years looking for a new location. He proposed that the funds for the project be delayed two years to match that timeline.

In recent weeks, during committee meetings to review the capital budget proposal, County Council members agreed with Elrich’s recommendation to not build the dog park. But they moved the $500,000 back into the budget for Fiscal Year 2023, because Parks Department staff members said it could be used for other projects instead.

The capital budget must still undergo a review by the full council in the coming weeks.

But, if the committee recommendation stands, a dog park would not be built at Norwood for “at least two years,” Riley said.

But the location is not off the table completely, he said.

“We’re going to look hard at other options in parks and options outside of parks for Bethesda,” Riley said. “Norwood still ranks high as a likely location. But we’ll have two years to see if there’s any tweaks we can propose that might make the dog park more palatable to them.”

A Norwood dog park was first proposed as the result of a countywide study, completed in June 2019, aiming to increase the number of play areas for dogs. The study recommended 13 locations for new parks.

The county currently has 11 dog parks — seven owned and operated by the county and four run by municipalities.

Other recommended sites were:

• North Chevy Chase Local Park
• Elm Street Urban Park
• Willard Avenue Local Park
• Wall Local Park
• Jesup Blair Local Park
• South Four Corners Neighborhood Park
• Layhill Village Local Park
• Washington Square Local Park
• Ovid Hazen Wells Recreational Park
• Calverton-Galway Local Park
• South Four Corners Neighborhood Park
• South Germantown Recreational Park.

Riley said this week that the Parks Department is “actively in discussions” with the community around Willard Avenue Local Park to gauge their “level of desire to see a dog park developed there.”

Staff writer Steve Bohnel contributed to this story.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com