New leash on life
The issue was almost too hot for local authorities to handle, pitting neighbor against neighbor and drawing throngs of angry citizens to City Council meetings. What had people so fired up? Taxes? Pollution of our drinking water? Cuts in education?
The issue was dogs— specifically, whether man’s best friend should be leashed while in city parks. Adding to the chaos at the meetings were the dogs themselves, brought by some owners who wanted to display their animals’ superior training.
“We use the parks more than any other subset of the population” went many dog-owners’ cries, “and our dogs need to run in order to have good lives.”
“Your dogs are terrorizing children and the elderly,” was the opposing cry, “and they make it impossible for anyone else to enjoy public parks.”
Back and forth it went, with City Councilors, counting a few leash-loving dog owners among them, the unwitting middlemen.
Finally, in December 2001, after 18 months of bickering over the issue— and two dogs dead near Riverview Park, a tied-up Chihuahua bitten to death by an off-leash Lab/Great Dane mix, which was then shot by the Chihuahua’s owner— City Council settled on a “compromise,” to be tested for six months, starting January 1, 2002.
That compromise is a leash law for all city parks, with the exception of the fenced dog runs at Azalea and at Darden Towe parks. At Riverview, the most coveted park in town thanks to the Greenbelt Trail which runs along the Rivanna, dogs were to be allowed off-leash on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, but only on the short loop of the trail, and not ever in the field at the start of the trail.
“There’s some compliance,” says Pat Plocek, parks manager for the City, “but there are still dogs off-leash on the days they should be on-leash.”
“When Animal Control starts issuing citations,” Plocek says, “compliance will rise.” He also describes poop scooping as the bigger issue. “It’s a major problem,” he says. “People just won’t be bothered with cleaning up after their animals.”
Plocek says it’s too early to make any guesses about whether the current leash law trial will be extended past six months, but he does offer a few words of caution to dog walkers: “If they want this to work, they need to make sure everybody’s complying.”
Not all assessments of the leash law trial are so pessimistic, however.
“We haven’t had a single call,” says Animal Control Officer Bob Durrer, who adds that he issued several warnings when the leash law first went into effect, but hasn’t given a single citation, which would come accompanied by a fine of up to $250. He admits, however, that in order to truly enforce the leash law in parks, the city would need to hire a second animal control officer, something that could happen later this year when Durrer says the city will send a second officer to basic animal control training.
But a lack of enforcement isn’t too much of a problem according to Peggy Van Yahres, current vice chair (and former chair) of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, which lobbied strongly for the leash law. “So far it’s working fairly well,” she says. “It’s working better than anyone had thought.”
Van Yahres, herself a dog owner, lives in the Woolen Mill neighborhood adjacent to Riverview Park and says she feels confident that on the days when dogs are supposed to be on-leash, “there has been a steady improvement.”
She says proof of this can be seen in the fact that more families are using the park and its playground.
But not every family in the neighborhood will be returning to Riverview. One father, who asked to remain anonymous, says he has seen absolutely no improvement and claims that, in fact, things “have gotten worse” since the implementation of the leash law.
“People are deliberately defying signs,” he alleges. On one recent visit, he says, two large dogs “stuck their noses right into my son’s face.” And he describes another dog owner encouraging her dog to run up the ladder and slide down the slide. “My son couldn’t use the playground equipment,” he says, “because a dog was going down the slide.”
Also dissatisfied with the current state of affairs are some dog owners who used to run their dogs off-leash, but who have had to make serious concessions in their dog walking schedules.
Kent Schwager was one of the most vocal opponents of the leash law, and although he may not like the new ordinance, he says it’s time for City Council to “be focusing on more important issues.”
“The park’s nice,” Schwager says of Riverview, “but fewer people are using it now.”
Schwager, for one, continues to use the park, and says his dogs are always “on leash,” though whether he’s holding the other end is a question he dodges.
“Every study concludes that having dogs on a leash does nothing to protect the public,” he insists.
The City’s Plocek says he believes it is a safety issue, but more than that, it’s a courtesy issue. “A child who’s afraid of a dog will be just as afraid of your nice dog jumping and licking as it will be of a mean dog,” he says.
Schwager also bemoans the environmental effects of the leash law. One such problem: beavers, which he says are now “clear cutting” much of the land along the Greenbelt Trail. “The dogs were keeping them in check,” Schwager says, “because all their natural predators were killed off.”
But the supposed beaver problem isn’t gnawing at one County expert. Peter Warren, extension agent with the Albemarle County Extension Office, says, “There’s been a general increase in the beaver population statewide.” And since beavers typically come out between dusk and dawn, Warren says, there wouldn’t have been much opportunity for dogs to affect the beaver population.
Schwager’s other environmental concern, however, is tougher to dispute.
“I don’t use Azalea or Darden Towe because I don’t live near them,” says Schwager, who lives on East Market Street. “For an environmentally concerned City Council, they shouldn’t be encouraging people to get in their cars to drive across town when there are resources in their own neighborhoods.”
Not every off-leash dog walker is dissatisfied, though. Jon and Alyson Rice, who run the cityofdogs website <www.cityofdogs.com>, say they think the leash law arrangement has been working reasonably well, though Alyson says she, like Schwager, believes it has reduced the number of dog walkers who use the parks.
The Rices don’t visit the parks as frequently, but she says it’s not because of the leash law.
“We fenced in our yard,” she explains, “so we don’t need to go as much.”
Like the old saying goes, you can’t please all the people all the time, and the leash law is no exception. One thing, however, seems clear: the leash law won’t be going away, and if compliance doesn’t rise, it’s possible dog owners will lose what little off-leash opportunities they have in Riverview Park.
But there is good news for dog owners: according to Plocek and Van Yahres, a second dog run is being considered for Darden Towe; the current run and parking area at Azalea may be improved and enlarged; and a large new area, including wooded walking trails, is under consideration at PVCC.
But with an estimated price tag in the tens of thousands of dollars, dog owners will have some serious fundraising to undertake before their furry friends have new ranges to roam.