Although the West Park Off-Leash Exercise Area is generally a source of enjoyment for people and their dogs, in August it became the center of a three-way debate between park users, the city and the Northside Oldtimers.

The city closed the off-leash area of West Park for two permitted events, one the Oldtimers Unity Day picnic Aug. 7-8, and the other African Arts in the Park Aug. 14-15.

Because of a lack of clear communication, dog park users felt the city should not close the park, and in addition, had complaints about the condition in which the off-leash area was left by the Oldtimers at past events.

No one complained about African Arts in the Park, which occurred more along North Avenue than in the off-leash area.

According to lawyer Jim Wallace, who represented Northsider Randy Zotter in a suit against the city for issuing indiscriminate tickets for off-leash dogs in 2004, the city promised park users not to issue event permits for the off-leash area.

But according to Director of City Operations Duane Ashley, the city made no such promise.

Both Wallace and Ashley were present at the 2004 settlement in which the verbal agreement against permits in the OLEA was allegedly confirmed.

The Northside Oldtimers, which has held its annual Unity Day in West Park for the past four years, is stuck in the middle, and Oldtimers President Allen Turner said he isn’t sure what happened.

A major complaint, according to posts made on the Yahoo! Groups page Chat Northside, was poor cleanup of chicken and rib bones on the part of the Oldtimers at last year’s event. Veterinarians are against giving chicken bones to dogs because they can splinter in a dog’s mouth or throat and cause serious damage or death.

This year, according to both Turner and Ashley, the Oldtimers took cleanup more seriously and hired a private company to not only provide security but to cleanup as well.

Despite the company’s efforts, though, park users who did not wish to be identified said they found chicken and rib bones in the off-leash area well after the event, though they agreed cleanup was more thorough this year.

Several park users said they felt it was not appropriate to hold an event with food that could potentially kill a dog in an area that was used as a dog park 360 days out of the year.

Ashley’s response was to ask if an entire event should be moved because a few people want to exercise their dogs, and he added that the city did not want to create a dog park in that area, but did so anyway at the community’s request.

Ashley said he was setting up a meeting between all parties concerned for early September, and that if he needs to organize a community meeting, he will.

Aside from feeling like the city went back on its word, Wallace explained park users’ other complaints, which also stem from last year’s Oldtimers event.

Wallace said park users had to deal with event-goers harassing them while they walked their on-leash dogs through West Park last year, and that the Oldtimers put up “no dogs allowed” signs, whether they were on- or off-leash.

Turner confirmed that the group was responsible for putting up the no dog signs, but added that the group had been thinking about safety and said he did not know of any harassment

Reverend David McFarland of Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church said he walked his dog through West Park during last year’s event and was not harassed or bothered.

This year, the Oldtimers did not put up “no dogs allowed” signs because the city told the group it was not allowed to, Turner said.

Another complaint park users had, according to Wallace, was that they did understand why the city allows such a large event to happen in such a small area of the park, when no other parts of the park have a dedicated purpose like the off-leash area.

Turner’s response is that West Park makes the most sense for such a big event. Not only do they get electricity from the Aviary, he said, but the event fills the entirety of West Park, and East Park is simply not large enough.

“In terms of size, it’s the proper place. In terms of convenience it’s the proper place,” he said.

He added that because of how much the event has grown in the past few years, it may be time to find a bigger venue that could better accommodate the thousands of people who attend.