Staff to continue to work on master plan for creating new enclosed areas designated for dogs to run freely
On a unanimous vote, the Sarasota City Commission this week agreed that all dogs in city parks — except in those areas specifically designated as dog parks — should be on leashes.
The board members chose to remove from a proposed ordinance an option that would have allowed a neighborhood group to petition for a park to be off-leash, with the city’s Parks, Recreation and Environmental Protection Board (PREP) having the final say on such action.
In making the motion, Commissioner Hagen Brody also called for staff research into modifying the ordinance’s penalties, calling them too steep. A first offense would be $300, he pointed out.
Nine of the 13 public speakers who addressed the commission on the issue during the July 17 regular meeting urged approval of the leash law.
“”Legislation cannot mandate ethics, laws and responsibilities,” Dorothy Hively, a Sapphire Shores resident, pointed out to the commission.
Allowing dogs to be off leash and under voice control by their owners “has been unsuccessful,” Pearlee Freiberg, an Alta Vista neighborhood resident, told the board.
“It seems to me that if you’re going to have a city park,” Vice Mayor Liz Alpert said, “it ought to be comfortable for everyone to be there and not just dog owners.”
Although a number of residents implored the City Commission at its May 1 meeting to make Sapphire Shores Park exempt from a new city leash law, the majority of speakers on July 17 who live in the same neighborhood talked about unwelcome incidents in which they had been involved with dogs running loose.
Two pointed out that the board of the Indian Beach-Sapphire Shores Neighborhood Association took an emergency vote earlier this month, asking that the City Commission include the park in the revised leash law ordinance.
Several of the speakers on July 17 also noted the wide variety of activities that take place in the neighborhood park, which has made it a draw to people who do not live in the immediate area.
“If you’re having a yoga class, you don’t want a dog running in there and defecating between your yoga mats,” Alpert pointed out. “You’d like to be able to concentrate on the yoga.”
City Parks and Recreation Director Jerry Fogle told the board members early on in the discussion that his primary concern is protecting the public. “I don’t feel that off-leash is safe … especially at a park that has a playground for little kids.”
Prior to the vote, Fogle assured Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch that the Parks Department will continue to work on providing enclosed dog parks within city facilities. Staff is completing a plan for such areas within Gillespie and Whitaker Gateway parks, he added, which will be coming to the board soon for action.
“What I’d love to do is give those at least a couple of years’ test run,” he added, before his department considers creating more enclosed dog parks. That period, he explained, would allow staff to determine what works best, so that can be replicated in future facilities.
The City Commission will have ultimate say over where new dog parks are created, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown pointed out.
Getting to this point
With Ahearn-Koch and Brody having been elected to the commission since the leash law revision process began in 2016, Assistant City Attorney John Shamsey explained the background leading up to the July 17 second reading of the proposed ordinance.
In late 2016, the city received complaints about dogs running off-leash in Bayfront Park in downtown Sarasota, Shamsey said. As a result, the City Commission asked the PREP board to look into the matter and bring back recommendations. Fogle and Carl Shoffstall, chair of the PREP board, appeared before the commission on Feb. 6 as a follow-up, with Shoffstall saying the PREP board recommended that the City Code be amended to require that all dogs be on leash in all city parks except for the areas enclosed as dog parks.
The commissioners agreed with that, but during the first public hearing on the revised ordinance — on March 20 — Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores residents appeared to ask that their community park — also known as Sun Circle Park — be exempt from the leash law. They cited the camaraderie of the residents in that neighborhood, who enjoy being able to socialize with each other as their dogs also socialize.
Further discussion on the proposed changes to the ordinance ensued during the commission’s May 1 regular meeting, with many of the same Indian Beach-Sapphire Shores (IBSS) residents testifying again. The City Commission ultimately directed staff to revise the proposed ordinance to allow for neighborhoods to become exempt from the leash law, indicating that Sapphire Shores Park would be the first to win such a designation.
“We left that meeting thinking we had pretty clear direction,” Shamsey said on July 17.
However, soon after that May 1 session, he continued, “quite a few” IBSS residents complained about the proposal, “and they provided very detailed written documentation to our office” about dog attacks on people and other canines within the park. Staff had been unaware of those reports handled by the county’s Animal Services Department, Shamsey noted.
Shamsey provided information about 10 reports in the commissioners’ meeting packet for July 17.
Ahearn-Koch asked why the proposed revision of the ordinance called for a petition to contain at least 15 “signatures of neighbors or other users of the park who support the park becoming leash-optional.” Shamsey replied that staff “just tried to pick a reasonable number; more than a couple, but not dozens or hundreds.”
When she next asked how residents would be considered valid petitioners, City Manager Tom Barwin explained, “The trigger’s the 500-foot notification of everybody around the park,” referring to the city’s required public outreach efforts in an area to be affected by a change in law.
City Attorney Fournier suggested residents signing petitions could be required to provide their addresses, so staff could determine if those people live in close enough proximity to the park in question to be considered users of it.
Then Brody pointed to the penalties for violating the ordinance. For a second offense, he noted, the fine is $400; for a third offense, $500.
Shamsey responded that staff had not made any changes to that section of the ordinance in its work on the revisions.
Brody also noted the contradiction that a person would pay only $100 if the person chose not to contest a citation in court.
“If you don’t go to court … you [get] a discount,” Shamsey said, drawing laughter from audience members.
He saw the lower amount as an incentive to resolve the situation outside the judicial system, Shamsey then added.
‘Wait until you get mauled’
During the public comments, Indian Beach-Sapphire Shores residents Alan Levin and Kara Kiedinger talked of the attraction of the Sapphire Shores Park to residents. Levin suggested the children’s playground in the facility could be fenced off, to prevent dogs from entering it. “I think that would be a compromise.”
Keidinger told the board she had read through the documentation Shamsey had referenced about incidents in the park, but she stressed that the last one occurred about 18 months ago, and one of the offending dogs in reports from 2009 had died since then. “Maybe a good option is to fence in the playground area,” she concurred with Levin.
“Saying that there haven’t been any incidents doesn’t mean that there haven’t been any unhappy situations,” Barbara Culbertson pointed out.
Philip Chiocchio, who lives on South Shore Drive, explained to the board that he is a show chair for the American Kennel Club, “and I love dogs.” He used to let his dog run off-leash in the park 20 years ago, he continued. “About 10 years ago, things changed.”
He judges confirmation classes, he said, in which owners use hand signals to control their dogs, which can be 100 feet away. Yet, in the Sapphire Shores Park, owners routinely are unable to get off-leash dogs to obey their commands, he indicated. “All I hear is ‘Fluffy, come over here,’” he told the board, mimicking a plea instead of a command. “There’s been a lack of consistent respect by new people.”
When he reported dog attacks on him and his dog in the Sapphire Shores Park, Pierre DePasse of North Shore Drive said, he learned from Sarasota Police Department officers that they had no recourse, because he had not gone to the hospital to seek treatment. “‘Wait until you get mauled,’” is what they told him, he added.
When Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie asked City Attorney Fournier whether the city would face the potential of liability if it designated its parks as leash-optional, he replied that he was unaware of any case law in Florida that would open up that potential. His view, he added, is that “it would be the responsibility of the owner to have their dog under control.”
Nonetheless, Brody said, “that doesn’t mean the city can’t be sued …”
“Exactly,” Fournier responded.
Ahearn-Koch asked Shamsey whether the City Commission would be able to hold a public hearing on a neighborhood’s petitioning of the PREP board to allow a park to be designated off-leash. Shamsey told her the decision would rest with the PREP, as the ordinance was written. “It would not be appealable to the City Commission.”
Referencing two of the speakers, Freeland Eddie said, “I … have a problem with the fact that we’re fencing off children in order to make it easier to have a dog to have a place to go in a park.”
“I am a dog lover,” Brody told his colleagues, but “I do have concerns with dogs running off-leash. I do share Mr. Fogle’s concerns. … I think the prudent thing, the intelligent thing … is to mandate that dogs be on leashes in city parks.” If a neighborhood group wants to see an area in a park designated off-leash, he added, “then we can talk about creating it.”