Dogs have run free — amok, some would say — in Robert E. Lee Park for years. Residents complained that the park had been "hijacked" by dog people. Even Baltimore County's parks director knew folks referred to the wooded lakeside retreat as "Dog Poop Park."
The spot, hovering on the city/county line, had become the area's favorite dog park — never mind that it wasn't one.
But that's all about to change.
After a $6.1 million renovation and a two-year closure, Robert E. Lee will reopen Friday, boasting all sorts of refinements — the centerpiece being a legal, fenced dog run that people will have to pay to use. Additionally, the park will become the county's first to hire a small corps of rangers charged with ticketing people whose dogs are caught off leash outside the dog run.
Baltimore County Recreation and Parks Director Barry F. Williams hopes the changes will lure non-dog-lovers back to the park, while allowing those with pets to keep using it — but in a legal and controlled way.
"The parks are for all people — no one group has exclusive rights over this area," Williams says. Some people are not going to be happy. I'm fine with that."
Robert E. Lee closed in October 2009, after Baltimore City signed the property over to the county through a long-term lease. What the county got was a picturesque but bedraggled 415 acres with a bad reputation.
People with dogs would drive for miles to let their pets wander free through the park's woodsy trails, tussle together in the peninsula near Lake Roland and, of course, swim there.
Years ago, when city officials attempted to block off the bridge to the peninsula for repairs, dog owners cut holes in a fence to get past it. When the city welded bars onto the fence to stop that, one woman who tried to wriggle through got stuck. Others climbed around it, risking a steep fall.
Dog owners wouldn't be denied — even while the park was closed these last two years.
"People have thought about it as Dog Poop Park," Williams says. "I've heard that."
But the county's overhaul attempts to change that image while making the park generally more welcoming. Renovations include changes to where park-goers can leave their cars, to the bridge that leads them into the heart of the land and to the landscape itself.
A new, third-of-a-mile boardwalk leads people to the park from the light rail parking lot. The county erected barriers to keep people from parking on Lakeside Drive off Falls Road, instead encouraging parking in a lot just past the Lake Roland dam.
Fallen trees have been cleared from trails. Long-shuttered restrooms have been turned into an office for the rangers. Permanent portable toilets have been installed. Measures have been taken to stop soil erosion.
The new dog run was built on the peninsula — the park's longtime de facto canine capital. Not quite two acres, the fenced-in spot offers a grassy, shaded spot for dogs, with a drinking fountain and benches for owners. A highlight is the graded stone path that leads to the water, for dogs inclined to swim.
They're calling it Paw Point Park, and it will be the county's second official dog park — the first is B.A.R.C. Park at Hannah More Park in Reisterstown. Like B.A.R.C. Park, those who want to use Paw Point will need a membership that costs $35 a year for two dogs. People can apply on the dog park website: pawpoint.org
Only members will have the code to open the gates at the dog park.
About 300 people bought memberships to B.A.R.C. Park, and officials expect the same for Paw Point.
The park's new rangers will be ticketing visitors with off-leash dogs, as well as leading nature programs. Fines in Baltimore County for an off-leash dog are $25 for the first offense and $100 if the dog is caught again.
Overall, county officials believe the changes could double attendance at Robert E. Lee — from 41,000 visitors a year to about 100,000.
"People have gotten used to using the park with limited management," says Beahta R. Davis, the county's regional coordinator for nature and recreation resources. "We have a different management style."
Peter Maloney, a Johns Hopkins researcher and a longtime Riderwood resident, volunteered for the committee that worked with the county on the renovations. He's convinced that with the park looking cleaner and prettier than ever, and with the dogs in check, people will return to the park.
"I rarely see picnickers or people out for a stroll; that's been rare," he says. "Some of these dogs can be overly aggressive and certainly overly intrusive. And some dog owners are not willing to admit that. But most of us are. I trust the exceptions will now be rarer and rarer."
Because people with dogs have become comfortable using all of Robert E. Lee as a dog park, Williams knows the adjustment will be hard for some. He's calling it " a culture shift" and says that "no one has cursed me out" in a way that suggests he expects it might happen soon.
"I have been told, 'I've been coming here for 20 years and I've always let my dogs run,'" Williams says. "I tell them that times have changed."
Clementine Winny is one of those unhappy customers. She drives her golden retriever Milly from her home near Fells Point to the park a couple of times a week and lets her romp along the trails and splash in the lake. She says Robert E. Lee is Milly's "favorite place in Baltimore."
She's disappointed that it will have to stop.
"It's kind of sad trying to make this park a better place but doing their best to get rid of the people that use it more than anyone else," Winny says, adding, "I have no question that gate will be vandalized in like two seconds."
But Ann Kangas, who lives in North Baltimore and has gotten used to letting her chocolate Labrador, Magnolia, says she'll happily buy a membership and abide by the park's new rules.
"Paying $35 a year doesn't seem oppressive, and it will help keep it clean for the enjoyment of any resident who uses it," she says. "It sounds delightful."