After deliberation, Finance Committee gave the order to purchase the Moose Lodge site a neutral recommendation despite residents’ push back.
By Will Meyer
NORTHAMPTON — Eight Councilors (all but Karen Foster, Ward-2) and Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra arrived at the proposed site of an animal control facility on Cooke Avenue Monday afternoon to conduct a simulated sound test of barking dogs to appease neighbors concerned about noise the facility might bring.
The Finance Committee met Tuesday and voted unanimously to give a neutral recommendation on the order to purchase the property that would house the proposed facility. The Council is planning to vote on the order in its Thursday meeting. About a half a dozen residents spoke during the meeting against the project and one resident spoke in favor.
Sound Test: “It’s not realistic”
The party arrived slightly behind schedule in a mini bus driven by former At-Large Councilor Bill Dwight and were met by nine demonstrators holding signs opposing the project. Council rules stipulated that due to the nature of the test, residents couldn’t ask questions during the experiment. However, residents handed out copies of a petition to the Mayor and Councilors expressing their opposition. According to the numbers organizers provided to The Shoestring, of 55 households surveyed in the immediate neighborhood of the proposed facility, 44 opposed the project and eight chose not to sign the petition.
The party walked through the muddy parking lot and into the melting snow to form a circle around Planning & Sustainability Director Wayne Feiden who was holding a bluetooth speaker at the approximate site of the proposed facility, which is located 300ft from the nearest residential dwelling.
Feiden explained how the experiment would work. They would play recorded sounds of barking dogs to simulate the volume of animals inside the facility at three different levels of insulation — the loudest would correlate to a building Feiden described as “stupid and cheap” (75 decibels), the middle volume was described as a building with “extra buffering” (65 decibels), and the most extreme earthen berms option would get the noise even quiter (57 decibels).
Feiden performed multiple tests at these different volume points, with most barking completely inaudible more than 50 feet away from the speaker. An overhead plane was much louder and completely drowned out the test.
Residents, however, didn’t believe the test accurately portrayed how animals in the facility would interact with those being walked in the adjacent Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area, where dog owners frequently allow dogs to go off-leash. One resident said the test was “a joke” as he headed away from the crowd. Another resident named Ron told The Shoestring, “it wasn’t realistic.”
“I thought it was a good experiment,” Mayor Sciarra told The Shoestring after the test had ended and Feiden’s speaker had been put away. “There’s a lot of ambient noise, but we expect there to be times where there will be even more ambient noise, which would make it harder to hear any sound coming from the building,” she said.
When asked specifically about dogs who are walking on the trail interacting with dogs from the kennel, Mayor Sciarra said, “I know there are always a lot of dogs in this area, because people bring their dogs to Fitzgerald Lake very regularly. I’m not sure how you isolate the neighborhood dogs [and] the dogs that are here on the trails [from those at the proposed facility].”
One of the residents, Kimberly Lambert, who has lived in the neighborhood for thirty years, explained her opposition to the project. “A lot of people would be able to hear the dogs barking. We’re concerned about traffic, we’re concerned about barking, we’re concerned about the expense.” Lambert explained that the city hadn’t provided enough data about the amount of animals in the care of its animal control program and suggested the city use the land to create a “conservation center” instead and “hire a part time conservation ranger.”
When asked if she felt heard by the city, Lambert said, “They’re trying. They’re given it a shot. They had a site visit [but] they started off poorly because they only informed a couple of neighbors. They didn’t even inform the [larger neighborhood].”
Multiple residents told The Shoestring they didn’t feel heard by the city.
Residents Speak Up
Tuesday’s finance committee meeting focused exclusively on a $100,000 financial order to purchase the property on Cooke Avenue where the kennel would be located. Nearly $800,000 has already been appropriated for the project. The committee ultimately voted unanimously to give the order a neutral recommendation to Council. Mayor Sciarra and Director Feiden both spoke before the public and committee members.
Sciarra spoke to the “desperate need [for] a facility.” The city currently contracts to Amherst’s animal facility and private kennels, but Sciarra said the neighboring town didn’t always agree to contract with Northampton, and refuses to take pregnant dogs, aggressive dogs, dogs with fleas, and other animals such as cats. She explained that the reason the city lacks current data on its animal control efforts is that animals are kept in many different places, including “an unheated bay of the police station where vehicles are fixed,” thus creating “a very difficult, unstable situation.”
Feiden said the site was “particularly attractive” because of the city’s ability to “mitigate the impacts on a residential neighborhood,” noting that the site was more than 300 feet from the closest dwelling. “That makes it further than, frankly, most places in the city unless you’re on a dirt road in the woods.”
Resident Tracey Culver spoke to the possibility of making a regional animal control facility like one that exists in Franklin County, which was echoed by several residents including Michael Kesten.
Another resident, Christine Clark, told the Committee that “for the past…month now, myself and all the neighbors have pulled together in trying to get our voices heard. And quite frankly, we don’t feel like we’re getting heard at all.” Clark spoke to the cost of the project. “My concern is that we’re presenting our side of the story. And, and it just seems like you’re passing right over us, there’s been no consideration for our property values,” Clark said. “My father was a Councilman and he would be flipping in his grave right now if he witnessed what I was going through. I haven’t slept. None of us have. We’ve been pooling together.” Clark said the neighborhood would “continue to fight.”
A resident named Adrianne spoke to what appeared to be a camp site presumably belonging to unhoused people up the hill from the proposed site. She quoted a recent column in the Gazette urgining the city to act on the housing issue. “The sheer number of people who are left without a home to return to and a bed to sleep in night after night, coupled with Northampton’s currently insufficient infrastructure to provide urgently needed relief, has created an abysmal situation.” She urged the Committee to think of the “human factor” and also suggested that the sound test didn’t accurately portray the sounds of real dogs.
Resident Alice Szlosek, who lives in the closest house on Emily Lane to the proposed facility spoke in favor of the project. “I am very much in favor of this purchase because I would rather see the land be owned publicly rather than privately,” she said. “And I agree it would be nice if it could be used as conservation land but from what [Director] Feiden has mentioned, that’s not not going to be a possibility, and if we use it as an animal control facility, and if it’s well-built with everyone’s considerations in mind, given all of the comments people have brought up, I think it’s actually a very good use of that property.”
“Nobody’s going to tell me about dogs”
Perhaps the meeting’s most passionate comment came from Ward 6 Councilor Marrianne Labarge, who after asking Director Feiden about the specifics of the property, shared a personal anecdote about losing her family’s dog to bring up a question about supervision in the facility. She responded to the fact that dogs will be video monitored in the kennel at night. “I’m going to talk, not as a City Councilor, but as a family who have been dog lovers all our lives. Nobody’s going to tell me about dogs,” Labarge said.
“I’m hoping I can get my camera on this,” Labarge said and then proceeded to show pictures of her dogs at various dog shows. “I don’t know if you can see that. This is a Russian Woodhound, it’s a Borzoi — not a cheap dog. But our dog[s] have won many, many championships. Championships. I didn’t show them, we had this dog flown out by the best handlers in the country.”
“I have a problem, Wayne, that I am hearing that there are monitors in the building at night time watching the animals. I don’t care how many monitors are running, I’m going to tell my experience with this Russian Woodhound, perfectly healthy. Three months later after she won her championship, my son Chris said, ‘Mother, something is happening to Abigail, she’s breathing funny.’ I came and looked at her and put her head on my lap. I’m just giving you some experience here. I said, ‘Chris, call the vet immediately.’ She died ten minutes later into cardiac arrest.” Labarge went on to use this experience of her dog’s death to question the efficacy of electronic monitors on unattended dogs.
Mayor Sciarra responded to Labarge’s concern, explaining that if a dog is sick it would be taken to a vet clinic and not left unattended.
Labarge also expressed skepticism about the sound test. “I do not agree with the test that was being used. And I have my reasons for that,” she said. “I will put our Australian cattle dog out there and you’ll see what [it] looks like. It was much different than what you were showing.”
A Neutral Recommendation
During the Finance Committee deliberation, committee chair Rachel Maiore (Ward 7) asked Director Feiden if there was anything else the city could do to appease residents. “Or we could work with the residents, if they want, I don’t know, signage or if there’s things that they desire, in their own use of the space, we could work with the immediate residents, so that they felt like it was addressing some things that they want on their their wish list.” Maoire ultimately expressed support for the project.
There was an extensive exchange about dogs being off-leash between the Mayor, Maoire, and residents. Mayor Sciarra spoke to this concern. “Dogs are supposed to be leashed. This has been something that has been a real struggle for [the Broad Brook Coalition] for a long time. And they continually talk about the damage to trails and the dangers of having dogs off leash there and have asked for more animal control in that area many times.”
During these deliberations, Mayor Sciarra also spoke more broadly to people’s concerns about not being heard. “I’m sorry that people don’t feel heard. I hope you feel more heard after this evening. And I think Councilor Maiore was saying, I can see why this would be concerning, but we are trying to answer your concerns and make sure you know that we will do everything possible to mitigate any sound.”
Both residents and Councilors asked the Mayor to provide more data about the city’s current animal control program before moving forward.
Council President Jim Nash (Ward-3) called on the Mayor to provide more information while at the same time expressing support for the project. “As a councilor, I’ve already voted twice on approving funding for this,” Nash said. “I am very much committed to seeing this facility be built,” noting that the facility “is about caring for animals.”
Nash brought a motion to the floor to give the order a neutral recommendation to the full Council, which they will take up in Thursday’s meeting.
Councilor Stan Moulton (Ward 1) who represents the neighborhood where the facility could be built, seconded Nash’s motion, “I appreciate your sensitivity to the fact that several of us have asked for additional data,” he said of Nash’s motion. “And I think we want to have as much hard data as we can Thursday night before we ultimately vote on this.” Moulton noted that he had received comments from 42 different people. Of those people, 24 oppose the project, and 17 expressed favor for the animal facility.
The committee voted unanimously to give the facility a neutral recommendation.
Will Meyer is a co-editor of The Shoestring. Photos by the author.
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