Carolyn Brink is a law-abiding citizen. The same can’t be said for her beloved Beckett.
It was 7 o’clock Monday morning, and Brink did her best to restrain the 40-pound goldendoodle named after the Irish author Samuel Beckett.
But a fresh pile of deer poop beckoned only a few steps away.
“It’s like caviar to them,” Brink said.
The longtime Fanwood resident managed to pull Beckett back from the abyss — La Grande Park — where dogs are strictly prohibited. In this Union County municipality, dogs and public parks are a hot-button issue stirring up heated debated in borough hall and pitting neighbor against neighbor.
There are plenty of quirky laws on the books in towns throughout New Jersey. In Haddon Township, Statute 175-12 says it is illegal to annoy someone of the opposite sex. Hoboken prohibits residents from operating legalized “games of chance” such as bingo on Sundays before 1 pm And in Blairstown, Statute 171-2 says shade trees may be planted along streets and highways, but only if they don’t “obscure light and air .”
In Fanwood, they prohibit dogs.
Not throughout the entire borough, mind you, but just in the very places dog owners would most likely take their canine companions: its three public parks (LaGrande Park, Forest Road Park and Carriage House Park). Violators “may draw a summons or fine,” the borough’s official website says.
Brink is among a group of Fanwood residents hoping for an amendment to ordinance 118-23B, which reads: “No dog, except a guide dog accompanying a blind or otherwise disabled person, is permitted in any public park of the Borough of Fanwood, regardless of whether such dog is controlled by a leash.”
As you can imagine, the ordinance — adopted in June 2001 — has drawn widespread debate in recent months within the square-mile bedroom community. The large majority of municipalities in New Jersey are dog-friendly, not only allowing canines in public parks, but providing dog runs and other infrastructure.
But not Fanwood.
Brink rallied opposition to the ordinance on Facebook by creating the Fanwood Dog Owners Group, where residents routinely share complaints about the dog prohibition. And she recently presented the signatures of 780 residents who want the law revoked at a council meeting.
“We have been barking up the tree at borough hall to try to get the law changed, but they’re still not moving on this,” Brink said.
For years, officials let sleeping dogs lie—provided they were outside public parks. Then came the pandemic.
“There has been a prohibition of dogs in the parks in Fanwood for decades and, to be honest, nobody had an issue,” Mayor Colleen Mahr told NJ Advance Media. “The COVID pandemic comes and everybody, it seems, bought a dog. And now people who never had dogs start to realize they can’t go into the park.”
Some officials have decided it’s time to call off the dogs by changing the law.
An amendment to the 21-year-old ordinance prohibiting dogs from Fanwood parks is expected to be introduced June 20 by the all-Democratic body. If the formal introduction receives the required four votes, the amendment would move to a public hearing July 18 and be put up for a vote.
But opposition remains, including among some borough officials.
“There are legitimately two sides of a conversation with this issue,” Mahr said. “These are well-used parks. Not everybody is a dog lover. And there are people who want to walk through a park with their dogs. Dogs are an extension of people’s families.
“It’s a very passionate issue.”
Just ask Larry Cohen.
In February, the longtime Fanwood resident — and owner of Shea, a Yorkshire terrier-Bichon Frize mix, and Ty, a mutt — emailed the borough’s lawmakers following a contentious meeting in which some council members pushed back on changing the law.
Cohen heard one council member express a reluctance to act because the La Grande Park pathways weren’t large enough to accommodate parents with a stroller and a person walking their dog. So what did he do? He measured the sidewalks throughout town and told the board the park’s pathways are nearly twice as wide as a typical sidewalk.
“In a related point, it was also mentioned that there were plenty of sidewalks on which people could walk their dogs,” he wrote in his letter. “In fact, of the 110 streets in town, 65 of them, or almost 60%, have no sidewalks.”
But Cohen wasn’t done.
He also studied the laws pertaining to dogs in Union County’s other 20 towns to gauge just how unique Fanwood’s restriction is for its nearly 8,000 residents.
“There are two other towns that don’t allow dogs in their parks,” Cohen said. “Linden does not allow dogs in their regular parks, but they have two dedicated dog parks. The only other town that doesn’t allow dogs in their parks is Roselle Park, but their parks are pocket parks and dominated by playgrounds.”
But not everyone is on Team Dog.
Karen Schwaneberg, whose home borders La Grande Park, is adamant that Fanwood maintains the status quo.
She is practically the self-appointed enforcer of the borough’s dog prohibition. She has called the police more than 20 times over the past 14 months, making formal complaints whenever she sees a canine violate the threshold of La Grande Park, according to documents obtained by NJ Advance Media.
“It’s not a matter of opinion,” said Schwaneberg, who yes, is ironically named Karen. “There’s an ordinance. The ordinance has been standing in our park for years. The ordinance states: ‘Dogs are prohibited.’ There are no stipulations with that. It doesn’t say on leash, off leash, parts of the park, or times of day that the dogs can or cannot be there.
“It says, ‘Dogs are prohibited.’ That being the case, as far as I’m concerned, that means the ordinance should be abided by.”
But she doesn’t merely want her neighbors to follow the law. She wants the commensurate fines posted for all to see — especially potential violators and their two-legged owners.
“How do you enforce an ordinance if you don’t indicate what the ramifications are if the ordinance is broken?” Schwaneberg said. “There’s no consequences. That’s why they ignore it. The police, their hands are tied for the same reason.”
There are no records showing fines for any dog owners who were cited. In fact, a review of the citations indicates the calls are logged as “nuisance” complaints.
“That right there upsets me because my dog is far from a nuisance,” Brink said, tongue firmly in cheek. “Maybe he’s annoying when he wants a second treat, but my dog is so lovely.”
So the battle rages on.
The issue was debated at a recent recreation commission meeting, a borough spokesperson said. The 11-person committee serves as an advisory panel to the Fanwood council.
“The Rec Commission did vote 6-5 to keep the current rules against allowing dogs in our parks,” said Tom Kranz, the Fanwood information officer. “Since that vote, there’s been word of mouth that some who voted to allow dogs have changed their minds, but there’s been no additional vote. So that’s really hearsay.”
Attempts to obtain a draft of the ordinance expected to be introduced at the June 20 meeting were unsuccessful. Kranz said any changes to the law would likely come with a list of conditions, such as all dogs must be licensed, kept on leashes no longer than six feet and their owners adhere to the current ordinance requiring them to clean up after their pets.
Any change permitting dogs in the park would be cheered by Brink, who asked for the ordinance to simply state: “All leashed dogs allowed in all Fanwood parks at all times” during the most recent council meeting.
“Just take down the damn sign,” she said.
Schwaneberg sees nothing but anarchy if that happens.
She warned that the conditions of her neighboring park “may very well go downhill” if dogs are permitted.
“I have no say in any of this,” Schwaneberg said. “The town’s going to do what the town’s going to do. If they’re going to allow dogs to defecate and urinate in the park, if the dogs are going to be permitted to roam free in the park, digging up the ground, and God knows what else they’ll do, I think it’s a real concern.”
Mahr, the Democratic mayor who was sworn into her fifth term in 2020, has heard both sides of the argument.
“One of the responsibilities of being the mayor is you deal with hyper-local issues,” she said. “With this issue, there have been advocates passionately fighting for it, and there have also been those objectors who would like to keep the status quo.
“And so the goal of the council has been to just be really good listeners and to look at other communities, but first and foremost, our role is to really listen to our community, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Then maybe all the barking will stop.
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Keith Sargeant may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.