A handful of unleashed dogs darted across the muddy trails of Robert E. Lee Park one recent afternoon, enjoying an area of the park long treasured by dog owners.
But the dogs won't be coming there much longer.
Next month, city officials intend to temporarily close the southeast corner of the park, located between Ruxton and the city line, to remove soil contaminated by dogs and to repair a pedestrian bridge.
The 25-acre peninsula will be closed more than a year while the rest of the 470-acre park abutting Lake Roland will remain open, said Robert Greene, a spokesman for the Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks, which owns the area as part of its reservoir system.
The project, scheduled to begin last month, was delayed after the city received a smattering of calls from angry dog owners and park users.
Susan Lowe brings her border collie from Patterson Park in East Baltimore to run freely at Robert E. Lee. "People won't have any place to take their dogs anymore," she said.
Soil samples collected by the city Health Department in early October revealed high levels of fecal coliform, bacteria found in animal feces, Greene said. High levels pose a health risk for young children and animals.
"I would not want to be sitting on that soil with my 1-year-old having a picnic," said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city health commissioner. "Fecal coliform causes gastrointestinal symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhea and stomach discomfort."
But some dog owners insist that the dog droppings aren't the problem -- they say erosion is a bigger concern.
"Ninety percent of the people here make an effort to clean up after their dogs," said Ed Smearman of Northeast Baltimore, who comes to Robert E. Lee once or twice a week to walk his dogs.
Even without soil remediation, reconstruction of the pedestrian bridge requires that the small section of the park be closed, said Kim Flowers, director of the Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks. The bridge project will cost the city about $1.2 million, she added.
"In order for us to maintain that portion of the park, we need to transport heavy vehicles across the bridge," she said. "It is unsafe to use that bridge for anything other than pedestrian traffic."
The bridge will be closed no later than Feb. 5, Greene said.
Baltimore County has also participated in the project's development and has provided $400,000 to help renovate the bridge, said Jean Tansey, chief of the capital planning and development department of the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks.
Public meetings will be held this month -- times and places to be determined -- to allow the community to discuss the temporary closing.
"We delayed [the closing] because we wanted to make sure that we allowed community members and anyone who has a stake in this to voice their concerns before we continued," Flowers said.
City officials say they have received complaints from both sides, including area residents who find the unleashed dogs a nuisance. According to city law, dogs must be on a leash.
"We don't want to restrict dog walkers from coming to the park," said Greene. "It's just a matter of correcting a problem in existence right now," he said about the soil.
While there are standards that regulate how many fecal coliform make water unsafe, soil has no such standards, Beilenson said.
"But there is no question that there has been fouling of the soil," Beilenson said. "So remediation of the top soil does make sense."
Before the park closes, the city will post signs warning of top soil contamination, he added.
For many local dog owners, Robert E. Lee Park is a rare green space where their animals can run free.
"We're talking about bringing people back to the city and then we don't have any green space to go take our dogs," said Tanya Ladigin of Towson, as her Dalmatian, Nikita, scampered up a muddy hillside.
"I will just have to go to a school field close to home," she said.