Pet Project

The fur flies in the battle over a dog park in Fountain Hills

So you'd think Susan Neuhart and I would be fast friends, given our mutual puppy love. While Neuhart makes some good points (for example, she argues that children under 12 should not be allowed in the dog park, ever, while the current proposal would allow children with adult supervision), after an afternoon of listening to her ideas and looking at her piles of paperwork and photographs, even I, dog lover that I am, have little patience for Susan Neuhart.

Neuhart and her now-husband, Hans, moved to Fountain Hills two years ago from Columbus, Ohio. Hans, an electronic illustrator whose work is featured in textbooks, decided to sell his business and work out of his home, so the Neuharts set out on a quest to find the perfect place to live.

Metropolitan Phoenix was a finalist, and they saw an ad for Fountain Hills on the plane. It was love at first sight, and they bought a modest home in central Fountain Hills--population 19,000: dog population, 2,500.

At the time, the Neuharts didn't have a dog. Their longtime companion, a rottweiler named Berlin, had died in Ohio, and they were waiting to replace him. After a few months in Arizona, they bought Moses, another rottweiler. Today, at 19 months, Moses weighs about 110 pounds and could pack on another 20 before reaching his full weight.

No wonder Susan Neuhart wants a dog park. Poor Moses. The Neuharts don't have a back yard to speak of, just a narrow strip of concrete and another narrow strip of gravel running along the back of their house. Susan says most houses in Fountain Hills don't have yards, and although they looked at smaller dogs, she and Hans decided they just had to have another rottweiler.

"We didn't really think about this being the middle of the Sonoran Desert and owning a dog in the desert," she says.

Then she read about a trial dog park at a Fountain Hills baseball field. The Neuharts were delighted. The field was open from 6 to 9 a.m. daily, and only a dozen or so dogs and owners showed up on most mornings.

The trial was suspended when Little League parents complained of dog feces on the field, but the seed had been planted. A movement for a permanent dog park began, and Susan Neuhart took the lead.

She put up signs asking for support, and almost overnight built up a database of more than 120 people. She started a group called Fountain Hills Dog Owners (FHDO), pronounced "Fido."

Neuhart estimates she's spent $2,000 of her own money on photocopies and ads in the local newspaper.

"We're not wealthy people," she says. "The deal is, why my husband lets me do this, is because I said to him, 'I'm not the kind of woman who has a lot of diamonds and a lot of fancy clothes.'"

Instead, she told him, she wanted a dog park. But Neuhart's days as FHDO's top dog were numbered. The supporters she gathered quickly tired of her tactless approach, she says, so FHDO was disbanded and the others created ADOG, which Neuhart describes as a more "socially harmonious" group.

"They had potluck dinners," she says, rolling her eyes.
Neuhart joined briefly, but was asked to leave the club after she and others had differences over the design of the proposed park.

Two ADOG members, Kimberly Marshburn and Hilary Quinton, were asked by the town's parks board to study dog parks around the country and make recommendations. In the end, everyone agreed that a suitable park would include 3.5 acres of land at a proposed 12-acre park in Fountain Hills, with a budget of $18,000 to build and maintain the dog park.

Well, not everyone agreed. Neuhart insists that the park must have a budget of at least $99,000, most of which would be devoted to her card-key concept and a parks employee assigned to police the dog park.

"I do not want people . . . to just enter the facility on the basis of a fancy impulse or a capricious idea," Neuhart says.

Such elaborate and costly dog parks don't exist elsewhere, from what I can tell. And while no dog park is perfect--there are scattered instances of bites and fights and poor feces management--I don't know of a park with more than a few isolated problems. And even Neuhart admits her plan wouldn't eliminate the risk factor.

The Fountain Hills Town Council will likely vote on the dog-park issue sometime this month. I saw the plans, and the park should be beautiful and adequate and a model for other Valley communities--unless Susan Neuhart has her way.

From doggies to donkeys . . .

For the first time I can remember, Mark Fleisher's sunny optimism has proved true. Despite a campaign to oust him, he was easily reelected as chairman of the Arizona Democratic party last month. One of his most vocal supporters, David Eagle, was elected first vice chair. No word as to what Fleisher's opponents--one of whom slipped me a hefty pile of documents detailing Fleisher's personal business follies over the years--will do next.

There were two inaccuracies in the column I wrote about those troubles ("Donkey Gong," Wonk, January 21). I reported that Fleisher's business, Starlite Productions, went bankrupt. It did not, although Starlite, at one point, did have liabilities of more than $300,000 under Fleisher's control.

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