By John Schwing

WESTPORT — This year’s “Westport Dog Festival,” planned in May by the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce, may be in for a dog fight.

In a March 7 letter to the chamber, 16 neighbors of Winslow Park — the festival’s venue — ask the organization to move the event “to another more appropriate location for two principal reasons.” This year’s event, the seventh annual, is scheduled May 21 at the park, according to the chamber’s website.

An application seeking Parks and Recreation Commission approval for an event banner is on the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting of the board.

Fundraising, safety concerns

Residents who signed the letter, which also was sent to the Parks and Recreation Commission and First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker, cited as their primary objections:

  • Use of the town-owned park by a private group that “monopolizes the ability to access, use and enjoy public parkland on the weekend,” and that the chamber is allowed to use some of the event proceeds to “support political candidates, policies or regulations that the interests of its membership.”
  • A lack of adequate on-site parking for festival attendees, which has “a dramatically adverse impact traffic and pedestrian/cyclist safety” on nearby Compo Road North. Despite police presence directing attendees to off-site parking, the neighbors say many attending the event park illegally along the Compo Road North edge of the park, forcing pedestrian and cyclist traffic between the vehicles and creating “a dangerous public nuisance.”

Acknowledging the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce’s right to raise funds for its mission, the neighbors contend the organization should consider sites they consider more “suitable.” They cite, among others, the Imperial Avenue parking lot or parking lots at either of the town’s two railroad stations, property at one of the town’s schools, Veterans Green, or “a facility rented or owned by a chamber member.”

Chamber: “Dog Festival” safe, considerate community event

In a response emailed to the Westport Journal, Matthew Mandell, the chamber’s executive director, said, “The Dog Festival at Winslow Park has been part of the community’s scheduled events for six years without incident.

“The festival only occupies a part of the park, leaving more than half to be enjoyed by the public at large,” he said. 

“The town has enthusiastically endorsed our efforts to make Westport a more interesting and welcoming place to live, work and visit. Adults, children and dogs are all welcome at this family-friendly festival. 

“The chamber makes a every effort to be a good neighbor for the one-day, six-hour event, taking all necessary precautions to ensure the safety of both participants and residents alike.”

Acknowledging the chamber is a 501C(6) non-profit, Mandell said it is “not a political nor a lobbying organization,” which he added has donated nearly $40,000 to partnering animal-related nonprofits from festival proceeds over the years.

Location of the event, which parks and recreation officials have approved, was selected because of Winslow Park’s “large grass field and, most importantly, because it is Westport’s sole dog park and comfortable for the main participants, the dogs,” Mandell said.

As for traffic safety and parking concerns, Mandell noted the Police Department has signed off on plans each year, and “to date there has never been any incident involving cars or pedestrians. The chamber hires a traffic officer each year to address any safety concerns.”

The neighbors, nonetheless, assert that using Winslow Park for the “Westport Dog Festival” is an “inappropriate and dangerous precedent to allow a vital public open space to be used in this fashion by the chamber.”

John Schwing, the Westport Journal consulting editor, has held senior editorial and writing posts at southwestern Connecticut media outlets for four decades. Learn more about us here.

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The full test of the Winslow Park neighbors’ letter to the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce is attached: