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Pet Project

Hear the snarling and snapping and growling coming from the normally tranquil town of Fountain Hills? Get ready. The great dog-park debate has hit the Valley.

So far, the dogs of Fountain Hills have exhibited model behavior. It's the people who are foaming at the mouth, turning a simple concept into a sniveling, high-pitched fight. And from what I hear, Fountain Hills is just the first local community to consider a dog park; Mesa and Ahwatukee aren't far behind. So dig in your claws, Valley of the Sun, for a long scuffle.

Phoenix is one of the last metropolitan areas in the country to go through it, this quest for the perfect public pooch playground. For years, several Valley cities have devoted small patches of their parks to dog runs, but until now, there hasn't been a community push for a bonafide dog park. The concept is simple: Just fence off a few grassy acres in a public park for dogs to run around off leash, provide fountains and poop bags and maintenance, and you've got a dog park. Nirvana.

But then the questions start. Which acres, and how many? Who will pay to maintain the park? Who will ensure that the dogs don't fight? That no one will be bitten or knocked down? And who's gonna see to it that the poop gets picked up?

Politics and pets are a hairy combination. Anyone who thinks the Clinton impeachment proceedings are the ugliest episode in American political history has never been to a meeting of the Maricopa County Rabies/Animal Control Advisory Council. People are passionate about their pets, and that passion rears up all the time in public policy debates. Getting a pet-sterilization program approved or land for a dog park set aside can be tantamount to getting a multinational treaty signed.

Even so, there are successful dog parks all over the country. From Eugene, Oregon, to Coral Springs, Florida, and in dozens of cities in between, dog owners have convinced civic leaders to create canine recreational facilities.

Of course, none of those cities had Susan Neuhart.
Neuhart is, to put it kindly, obsessed. She spearheaded the push for a Fountain Hills dog park, but in the end, she's the biggest reason the town may never have a park.

Instead of settling for a simple gated park with requirements that dogs be tagged and poop be picked up, Neuhart is insisting upon an elaborate card-key entrance system, a $150 membership fee and an audition--she calls it a "debut"--for each dog. No dog park in the country I've heard of has such a system, but Neuhart is convinced the park will be dangerous without it; and she is spreading that word through town.

Coached by her daughter, a staffer on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, Neuhart has launched an initiative campaign to get her fancy version of the dog park on the Fountain Hills ballot in spring 2000.

She needs 1,600 signatures to qualify, but she may not get more than two--her own and her husband's. Neuhart says she has more supporters, but they're unwilling to come forward.

It seems that Neuhart's zeal has alienated just about every dog lover in Fountain Hills, and, as with so many public policy issues, personalities and emotion have eclipsed reasonable discourse.

Kimberly Marshburn, a Fountain Hills dog owner and co-author of the simpler dog-park proposal, claims Neuhart has an ulterior motive, that she wants to market her card-key system nationally. Neuhart's causing such a fuss, Marshburn says, she could ultimately bury the Fountain Hills dog park entirely.

"If I didn't want this park," Marshburn says, "I'd be rootin' for Susan."
Neuhart is definitely eccentric. One of her signature lines: "Wake up and smell the irresponsible pet stools." Another favorite: "I'm not an animal behaviorist, I'm just a lady," just before she adds, "Some dogs are not fit to be in the facility. I mean, it's readily apparent."

Marshburn, while mellower, isn't so easy to take, either. Marshburn goes as far as to accuse Neuhart of trying to brainwash Fountain Hills with her access-control rhetoric. But then Marshburn opens her own mouth and she sounds nutty, too.

"By the way," she says, "instead of 'dog park,' would you mind calling it 'off leash'? Because this is for humans. This is one of the silly arguments. Is this a park for dogs? No. It's a park for dog-owning families."

Oh.
But even Marshburn sees the proposed park for what it is, and, she admits wryly, "the PTA is so jealous," at all the attention dogs are getting. Susan Neuhart, however, is a different story. She doesn't see the irony at all. Instead, she gets more and more excited, talking about how her daughter's got her all fired up.

 

"Oh, it's great," Neuhart says. "She's urging me on, she's urging me on. She starts talking about civil rights. . . . It's put me light-years ahead of where the gestalt was in this town."

Confession time. My husband and I have two dogs, Rosy and Elliot, both golden retriever mutts. We love our dogs. A lot. We give them carob-iced doggie cookies and take them on road trips and coo and gurgle and sing to them. I once threw Rosy a birthday party, and invited all of her dog "friends" and their people over to my parents' backyard--it's bigger than mine--to run around and swim. (Sorry about the flower beds, Mom.)

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.

Also, I reported that Fleisher was sued in connection with Twin Star Productions, another company he worked for. He was not. Instead, Fleisher and another former Twin Star employee, Douglas Gravink, were sued as employees of Starlite Productions. I regret the errors.

Contact Amy Silverman at 229-8443 or her online address: asilverman@newtimes.com


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