The dogs were there in spirit, if not body, for the signing ceremony that made official the Festival Lands agreement, including a permanent off-leash dog area near the west shore of Cayuga Lake.
Ithaca Mayor Carolyn Peterson and New York State Parks Regional Director Tim Joseph signed the management agreement to applause from the small group of city officials and dog walkers who gathered Tuesday morning at City Hall for the event.
“There's been a long history of people putting down the dog park as if it were a waste or a mis-use. ‘Parks are for people,'” Joseph said. “And I agree with that. Parks are for people, including people with dogs. We didn't put it up there for wild dogs to use. We put it up there for people and their dogs, just as we have many, many specialized uses. The marina is for people and their boats, and we have ball parks for people and their teams and now we have a park for people and their dogs, and I'm pleased to be able to sign this today and make this official.”
Peterson called the signing an “auspicious moment” that resolved more than 20 years of disagreement between the city and the state parks department over the Festival Lands, which sit almost entirely within Allan H. Treman State Marine Park.
When the city initially transferred the land that is now the marine park to the state parks department years and years ago, it kept the Festival Lands in order to build a cultural center, Joseph said. The center was never built, and over the years, the state parks department continued to maintain the land while trying various methods to get the city to actually hand over the land, he said.
Most recently, the issue came to a head when the city voted to allow dogs to run off-leash in the Festival Lands, over strong objections from the state parks department. The state responded by removing its Dumpster and refusing to mow the Festival Lands, as it had previously done.
The state parks department also laid a claim to land on Inlet Island owned by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and occupied for at least the last 40 years by the volunteer U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. The city wanted to buy the land from the DEC to re-develop it, but the claim by the parks department de-railed that.
Both sides eventually compromised, with the state parks department agreeing to manage rather than own the land and the city insisting on a fully fenced area in order to continue the off-leash area.
Tompkins County Dog Owner's Group led the push in city hall to enact the leash exemption in the Festival Lands.
Leon Kochian, a TCDOG member, thanked the city and state parks for doing what was needed to make the dog park permanent.
“This is a wonderful day for us,” Kochian said. “It's been a long fight.”
Liz Constable, another TCDOG member, said that in surveys she's done of dog park users, she's found a wide demographic range of people who use the park, including people who travel to Ithaca from as far as Binghamton specifically to use the dog park.
“They ask how they can get a dog park in their city,” Kochian said.
“You probably don't want to go the route we did,” Peterson responded, laughing.
Now that agreement has been reached with the state parks department, Peterson said the next step will be obtaining the Inlet Island land from the DEC.
Waterfront merchants have petitioned the city for years to move forward with plans for waterfront revitalization and economic development.
Coast Guard volunteers, who would likely be displaced by the re-development, want specific answers about where they would be able to conduct their vessel checks and boating safety classes if the city displaces them.
Walter Robinson, volunteer flotilla commander with the Coast Guard auxiliary, said Peterson has indicated commitment to accommodating the Coast Guard but has provided no specifics on how or where.
“The real problem is money. Who has money to create a building?” Robinson said, suggesting that the people who benefit from re-developing Inlet Island should foot the bill.
“To me the ideal solution is: the one who's going to make the money needs to come up with the money,” he said.