It’s been a long march for Rob Simmons. And as a former colonel in the U.S. Army, Simmons knows something about marching — and expecting the unexpected. But there is little Simmons’ time as a CIA officer, or his five terms in Congress, could have done to prepare the man for what awaited him as First Selectman of Stonington.
Simmons went from earning two Bronze Stars in Vietnam, serving on the House Base Realignment and Closure Commission and heading the Yankee Institute — to worrying about dog poop and potholes. Let me explain.
The potholes you would expect. My favorite way of caricaturing the less partisan nature of small-town government is: “There is no Republican or Democratic way to fix a pothole” — although I might add that Democrats are more likely to use union labor. The former Sen. Al D’Amato of New York, known for his slavish attention to constituent services back home, was famously called “Senator Pothole,” which is probably how he survived for 18 years as a Republican statewide office holder in a blue state.
But it looks like Simmons’ main concern right now isn’t potholes but dogs — specifically some wealthy neighbors from Nashville, Tenn., who have aimed some legal rockets squarely at the town of Stonington for allowing what they call an “illegal dog park” abutting their pricey home on Stonington Harbor.
Simmons’ willingness to fight for justice in this case has earned him the moniker “Rob Simmons: Dog Park Warrior” — so dubbed by David Collins, a columnist for The Day newspaper in New London. Forget about fighting terrorism or saving the Groton submarine base. Simmons now must tangle with a high-priced legal team over dog poop.
Now there are some good reasons to question whether having an unofficial dog park so close to a residential neighborhood is a good idea. And there are no doubt good people who are rightfully annoyed by the usual unpleasant characteristics of dog parks: interminable barking and the resulting shouting by owners who refuse to remove their doggie’s doo. And the reasonable neighbors of the park are trying to work with Simmons and the town to resolve the issue.
But it is the lawsuit brought by a power-couple owning a vacation home that has aroused the most attention — and for good reason. Frank Mastrapasqua and Laura Ann Gabrysch, an investment banker and a tax lawyer respectively, bought a $900,000 home next to the sewage treatment plant in Stonington borough in 2014. The town also owns an adjacent plot, now used as the dog park, in case the plant needs to be expanded someday.
The couple claims the town has not obtained the required borough zoning approval for the park, refused to enforce the borough leash law, and allowed dog waste to pollute Stonington Harbor. So far, so good?
The law might say one thing but the couple’s actions say another. Is it really possible for two people with high-powered careers to spend $900,000 on a vacation home and not know of the existence of a dog park next to the property? If so, I wouldn’t want to hire either one of them, seeing as there are signs and plastic bags on the premises for waste disposal. Actually, as Collins points out, the couple admits they sent their real estate broker to Town Hall to ask about the dog park property before they closed on the house.
Mastrapasqua penned a tartly worded guest op-ed in The Day calling the dog park “a dangerous place” whose neighbors have had “dog feces [thrown] at them” and accusing town officials of lying and “despicable behavior.”
We get a lot that kind of behavior where I live in the opposite corner of Connecticut. Most weekenders and part-timers from out of state are polite and respectful of the needs of the locals. Others, however, move to Litchfield County because they say they want the “rural way of life.” Then they try to shut down smelly dairy farms, noisy granite quarries, saw mills, and auto racing facilities — all traditionally accepted rural enterprises. Truth is, they don’t want rural. They want Currier & Ives and fallow fields — or, in a word, a Colonial theme park writ large.
That having been said, the locals are happy to take the money of the New Yorkers, as I’m sure the Tennessee couple’s attorney and the contractors who worked on their home in Stonington are. As for Simmons, this whole episode probably makes him long for the days of interrogating the Viet Cong and dealing with the likes of Newt Gingrich.
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