A Camden dispute has pitted the city against volunteers who turned vacant lot into a dog park

A vacant lot transformed into a dog park was meant to be something special for neighbors in Camden’s Cooper Grant section, where community volunteers cleared, cleaned, and built a fence around the property.

On Tuesday, to the dismay of volunteers, the city bulldozed the fence, which was made of wood pallets. Ben Saracco, who said he helped coordinate with city officials to turn the blighted property into a neighborhood asset, questioned why the fence was removed and why neighbors were not notified ahead of time.

“The bulldozer pulled up and starting knocking down the fence,” he said.

Within minutes, it was gone.

City officials said the neighborhood group had not been given permission to create a dog park, but Saracco said it was clear that they knew the lot was being used as one.  He said the city and Camden Redevelopment Agency even posted signs, saying “Please Clean Up After Your Dog” with the word barkpark at the bottom of one. Officials also placed a trash bin and a container of plastic pickup bags, he said.

City spokesman Vince Basara said some neighbors objected to the dog park, which is bordered by rowhouses on the 200 block of North Second Street, and that some had complained of the smell.

“There were many, many complaints about the odors,” he said.

Camera icon Sydney Schaefer / Staff Photographer
A sign reminding residents to clean up after their dogs sits next to a waste basket in a vacant lot on North Second Street in Camden.

On Wednesday, Olivette Simpson, interim executive director of the  redevelopment agency, e-mailed Saracco, saying the city had received several complaints about the property. She said an inspection concluded that the dog park was an “unauthorized” use of the property and exposed the city to liability. The lot is designated for redevelopment, Simpson wrote, adding that the agency will install a permanent fence in the near future and the property will be maintained by the agency and the city.

Basara said the fence was put up without city approval and with pallets that are not consistent with fence restrictions, especially in the Cooper Grant neighborhood, which is designated as a historic redevelopment zone. He said some city officials agree that having a dog park in the neighborhood is a good thing and they will work with neighborhood groups to decide when and where that can happen. Until then, he said, the North Second Street property will be enclosed — mostly likely with a chain-link fence — and secured so neighbors will no longer have access to the property. While those plans are not definite, Basara said, it’s possible neighbors can petition the city for temporary use of the property.

Wednesday night, some residents attended a redevelopment agency meeting that Saracco said was productive because it initiated needed discussion about future use of the lot.

Camera icon provided by Cooper Grant Neighborhood Association
Camden volunteers cleared the lot on North Second Street, only to have use of the property taken away this week.
Camera icon provided by Cooper Grant Neighborhood Association
After Camden volunteers cleared the lot on North Second Street, they spread mulch so weeds did not grow back.

Saracco said residents had been in touch with the redevelopment agency about the property for years. First, they complained that the lot was not being cleaned and maintained. Then, volunteers stepped up to remove debris, weeds, and underbrush several years in a row. Over the summer, Saracco said, redevelopment authorities gave residents permission to clean the lot. The group also spread mulch, while city officials installed “no parking” and “no dumping” signs, he said.

Saracco and others questioned why the dog park was targeted when so many other vacant lots are not maintained by volunteers.

“Obviously, the city spending its time, money, and resources to destroy a community dog park is unbelievable and disheartening,” Saracco said. “Especially when there are so many other parts of the city that could use these resources instead.”