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Sarasota Thursday, Mar. 23, 2017 3 years ago

City unleashes conversation on dogs in parks

The city is considering changing its park policies to make dogs to stay on a leash, but some pet owners think officials are barking up the wrong tree.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Norman Hervieux is a believer in the therapeutic value of fetch.

Twice a day for the past 32 years, Hervieux has gone to Sapphire Shores Park on Sun Circle, a short walk from his home in the area. In the evening, he brings his poodle, Liebchen, and tosses around a ball for his pet to chase. It helps him relax.

“It’s a simple story,” Hervieux said. “I’m a simple person. I come home from work. I’ve got a dog. I’m glad I’m done with work. I play fetch. It’s like baseball and apple pie.”

Hervieux wasn’t at the park Monday evening, though. He was listening to the City Commission discuss regulations that would impede his ability to play fetch. Based on the recommendations of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Environmental Protection Advisory Board, the commission was considering requiring dogs at all city parks to be on leashes.

Hervieux was part of a group of dog owners who use Sapphire Shores Park and implored the commission not to approve the new rules.

“It’s a drastic change in the quality of life in my life and every schmo like me who comes home from work and wants to take their dog out,” Hervieux said.

Dog parks
Nora, a golden retriever, and Dennis, a goldendoodle, run in Sapphire Shores Park Tuesday afternoon.

The dog owners were successful — to some degree, at least. The City Commission took no action Monday, continuing its discussion to next month as it searches for the best policy for regulating dogs in city parks.

The city has been examining this subject since late last year. Some residents lobbied the city to allow dogs off leash at Bayfront Park — one of four city parks with leash requirements — during the early morning hours. Others complained about off-leash dogs in that same park, asking the city to step up enforcement.

City Attorney Robert Fournier said the existing regulations are difficult to navigate. In almost all city parks, dogs just have to be under voice control and within 100 feet of their owners. There are the four exceptions where dogs must be on leash. On Lido Beach, dogs aren’t allowed at all. And in some parks where dogs are allowed, there are pet-free zones.

The proposed changes were an attempt to streamline the rules. Dogs were allowed in city parks, but only on leash. The only exceptions would be fenced-in dog park areas, the increased development of which is a priority for Parks and Recreation Director Jerry Fogle.

Dog owners who use Sapphire Shores Park say those regulations would fail to consider the unique character of the neighborhood park. Darian Hoyt Miller described the park as self-policing, with distinct areas for off-leash dogs, on-leash dogs and children. She called it an important community meeting place — and worried the new leash rules would throw off the dynamics.

“We gather peacefully,” Hoyt Miller said. “We interact, we build friendships, we discuss the neighborhood.”

Sapphire Shores Park
Portions of Sapphire Shores Park are designated as pet-free zones. Residents say this allows the park to function well, but city officials want more consistent policies.

The commission was swayed by the residents’ testimony. As an alternative, Fournier suggested the “dog park” designation didn’t have to apply to fenced-in areas — that Sapphire Shores Park could be classified as a dog park, letting dogs run off leash. Commissioners directed staff to study which other neighborhood parks might like to allow dogs off leash.

Marking off-leash parks the exception, rather than the rule, would bring the city policy closer to the county’s regulations.

“The goal is still to end up with something that’s a little easier to follow,” Fournier said.

Still, solving the problem might not be so straightforward. City Commissioner Susan Chapman questioned how the city would make sure people were actually complying with more stringent leash regulations.

“When I told people walking their dogs off leash this was going to happen, they said, ‘We’re going to take our chances,’” she said.

If residents weren’t going to voluntarily comply, Chapman suggested it would take an undue concentration of resources to actually enforce new rules. 

“We’re going to have to have, I think, a dog police unit,” she said.

Hervieux bristled at Fournier’s suggestion that Sapphire Shores Park become a dog park. In his mind, there’s a significant distinction between a dog park and a neighborhood park that happens to allow dogs off leash. Residents don’t want to see dog owners flocking to their park — they want to maintain the status quo.

dog parks
Liebchen sits in front of the Sapphire Shores Park dog bowl, one sign that the park is an important resource for neighborhood dog owners.

And not everybody agrees dogs should run free in neighborhood parks. On Tuesday, Lauren Peltz took her chocolate Labs to Indian Beach Park. She keeps her dogs leashed in parks close to the street, which applies to both Sapphire Shores and Indian Beach.

She doesn’t trust her dogs enough to ditch the leash — and she doesn’t trust owners who assure her that their dogs are under control.

“They’re still dogs,” Peltz said. “They’re canines. They’re not human beings.”

As the city continues its consideration of leash laws, Hervieux said staff isn’t going to be able to find a simple, one-size-fits-all solution. As a result, he’s hopeful change isn’t going to come.

“What we have is working,” Hervieux said.

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