Public hearing on proposed City of Sarasota leash law for all parks continued until May 1

Staff asked to research the possibility of differentiating between neighborhood parks and larger facilities, such as Payne Park, and to investigate cost of enforcement

Payne Park could have a stricter leash law than neighborhood parks. News Leader photo

After listening to six opponents of a proposed amendment that would require the leashing of dogs in all city parks — except in areas specifically designated for dogs — the Sarasota City Commission this week decided to continue the public hearing until May 1.

On March 20, the commissioners asked the city’s Parks and Recreation Department director, Jerry Fogle, to look into the potential of differentiating between neighborhood parks and larger facilities, such as Bayfront Park and Payne Park, in establishing revised regulations.

Several residents of the Sapphire Shores/Indian Beach neighborhood had addressed the board about the routine community gatherings at the park in their neighborhood, located at Sun Circle and North Shore Drive. They bemoaned the potential of having to leash their dogs in that type of setting, which, they said, has proven a very good means of keeping in contact with each other.

“My concern is striking a balance,” Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie told Fogle and Assistant City Attorney John Shamsey, who had worked with Fogle on the proposed ordinance.

Both Freeland Eddie and Commissioner Liz Alpert talked of how they regularly walk in Payne Park and Bayfront Park, respectively, indicating that those larger facilities, with a greater diversity of users, would be better served by a requirement that all dogs be on leashes.

Commissioner Liz Alpert. File photo

“It’s not necessarily a neighborhood park,” Alpert said of Bayfront Park.

Commissioner Susan Chapman also requested that staff research the cost of enforcing the new ordinance, if the board does choose to put it into effect. “The thing I’m concerned about,” she said, “is that we’re going to get a large cost of enforcement,” because people invariably will disregard the law. “I think you’ll need a dog enforcement unit.”

When City Attorney Robert Fournier sought clarification that Chapman was seeking information relative to implementing the leash law for all parks, she responded, “Right.”

As it stands, Chapman added, dog owners themselves enforce the rules in Bayfront Park — where, she noted she routinely walks, though without her dogs. For example, she has called out to people, she said, who have not picked up their animals’ waste.

Furthermore, Chapman pointed out, “We already have dangerous dog ordinances.”

Fournier responded that he doubted many citations have been written regarding dog incidents, but he would undertake the research before May 1.

Reaching this point

During their presentation, Fogle and Shamsey provided the board a recap of the events that had led to the March 20 discussion.

In the late fall of 2016, Shamsey explained, the city received complaints about dogs running off-leash in Bayfront Park on the city’s waterfront. The commission then tasked the city’s Parks, Recreation and Environmental Protection (PREP) Board with looking into the issue, including taking public testimony. As a result, Shamsey continued, the PREP Board on Feb. 6 recommended the leash law for all city parks.

Jerry Fogle (left) and John Shamsey appear before the City Commission on March 20. News Leader photo

Fogle added that staff would need City Commission direction to move forward with creating new dog parks, where the pets could be allowed to run freely.

Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown told the board those parks would be included in the city’s Capital Improvement Projects budget.

When Chapman asked how many dog parks the city has, Fogle replied that Arlington Park has the only facility of that type; that park is maintained by Sarasota County. City staff also has been working on the design of dog parks at Whitaker Gateway and Gillespie parks, Fogle noted.

After those were established, Fogle told the commissioners, he would like to watch how they function for a year or two before taking steps to create more such facilities. He wanted to avoid repeating any mistakes that might be discovered with these initial designs, he added, and he also wanted to budget appropriately for future dog parks.

When Chapman asked about the cost per dog park, Fogle responded, that it was about $11,000 for the design of each one. Bids for construction have not been advertised yet, he noted. After a bid was awarded, he continued, he estimated that it would take three to four months to put them in place.

Public pleas

Sapphire Shores Park is on Sarasota Bay. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

During the public hearing that evening, Darian Hoyt Miller was the first Sapphire Shores resident to tell the commissioners about the neighborhood get-togethers at the park in that community in north Sarasota. “We gather peacefully; we interact,” she said.

As residents chat with each other, she continued, their dogs play off-leash. “We have been self-policing all these years.”

That facet of life in Sapphire Shores has increased the desirability of that neighborhood for homebuyers, Miller pointed out.

“Amending the ordinance feels like it’s designed to quiet the few, but persistent, complainers, and it’s not considering all the positives,” she told the board.

“Don’t do it to us,” Richard Miller — also of Sapphire Shores — summed up his view of the potential new leash law.

When another Sapphire Shores resident, Norman Hervieux, learned of the public hearing on March 16, he told the commissioners, “I was actually shocked.”

The proposed ordinance includes this section on penalties. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

He was especially upset about the penalties in the proposed ordinance, he said. For a first offense, it is $300; for a second, $400; and for a third, $500, Hervieux pointed out.

Meera Werth, who lives on Sapphire Drive, told the board the law is “going to change the whole quality of life of people who come to [the] park [in Sapphire Shores].”

Yet two more residents of that neighborhood supported the earlier views.

Only Holly Cita — the final speaker during the public hearing — talked of problems that can ensue with dogs running off-leash, including attacks on people and wildlife. “I absolutely avoid parks where we don’t have leash laws.”

“I have to say I have been at that park,” Chapman told her colleagues after the speakers completed their remarks. “It is exactly the way the people describe it,” she added. “It’s a community-creating type of experience.”

Settling on the next step

Commissioner Susan Chapman. File photo

As the board discussion resumed, Chapman voiced her fears about the potential for high city costs in enforcing the proposed law. “We’re going to have to have a dog police force, because we’re going to have a lot of civil disobedience by a lot of law-abiding citizens, because they want their dog to have a little bit of recreation time.”

Then Freeland Eddie suggested differentiating between parks.

“I understand your point, Vice Mayor,” Fogle responded. “I just think it would be very difficult to manage that, if we are even able to do it.”

Alpert was the first to say she wanted more information from staff before proceeding on the issue.

Fournier then proposed the possibility of staff creating a list of neighborhood parks that could be included in the ordinance, specifying where dogs would be allowed to remain off-leash.

“I would find that useful,” Alpert responded.

“I’d like to hear more on that,” Commissioner Suzanne Atwell agreed.

Although she was the most vocal advocate of the proposed ordinance when the board discussed leash laws in February, Atwell said she would like to learn more about Sapphire Shores Park. “I think when we began [working on this], we all wanted to do this in the name of consistency with [Sarasota County],” she added, which requires dogs be leashed in all parks. Still, Atwell pointed out, “We have a very unique city. … Maybe we ought to differentiate.”