Sapphire Shores Park to be exempt from new leash law in city parks, City Commission indicates

Tweaks board has proposed for the ordinance will be made before the final vote on it, city attorney says

Sapphire Shores Park in north Sarasota also is known as Sun Circle Park. Image from Google Maps

The Sarasota city commissioners have given unanimous endorsement to a revised ordinance that will require all dogs to be on leashes in city parks, unless a special exemption has been granted to a facility or the animal is in a designated, enclosed dog park or another park area created for canines.

During their regular meeting on May 1, they acceded readily to the request of residents of Sapphire Shores and Indian Beach to grant the first exemption to Sapphire Shores Park. That will be part of a revised version of the law that they will consider on second reading.

Among the speakers during the public hearing was Dr. R.C. Johnson, a retired urologist who lives on Sapphire Drive. “I am very impressed with our neighborhood’s park and the way the quadrupeds get along, which seems to be better than the bipeds, for the most part,” he said. “There have been very few incidents [with dogs causing problems.” Moreover, Johnson said, “I know more dogs than I do the people [in the neighborhood].”

After making a motion to approve the draft ordinance as presented, Commissioner Suzanne Atwell told the group of Sapphire Shores/Indian Beach residents, “You’re being a model in all of this.” She added, “Dogs rule, guys,” drawing some laughter from audience members. “But you are going to be the model from hence … and so that’s quite exciting, actually.”

Commissioner Liz Alpert. File photo

Commissioner Liz Alpert proposed several tweaks to the ordinance in an amendment to Atwell’s motion: the establishment of a staff process to exempt parks; a means of including in the ordinance and on the city’s website a list of the facilities where dogs may continue to run free; and language about the erection of appropriate signage concerning the application of the leash law in each park. However, City Attorney Robert Fournier suggested that the board merely approve the draft and ask that a report on the ordinance be brought back under Unfinished Business at the next meeting. That would give staff flexibility, he noted, to be creative in responding to the concerns she had cited, which had arisen during the discussion that night. As a result, Alpert withdrew her amendment.

Capt. Kevin Stiff of the Sarasota Police Department voiced worries that his officers will have difficulty knowing how to enforce the law unless they have an easy means of checking on its applicability to each facility. “I currently have about 50 new police officers,” he pointed out. Whenever an issue arises about enforcement of any ordinance, he continued, officers look online for the information they need relative to the specific law.

Alpert suggested that perhaps language in the revised draft mention an “Exhibit A” that would list each exempt park; it could be included with the ordinance and updated as needed. That was among the potential solutions staff could consider, Fournier indicated.

The background

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

On March 20, the city commissioners were prepared to vote on an ordinance before residents of Sapphire Shores pleaded with them not to enforce a leash law in Sapphire Shores Park — which also is known as Sun Circle Park.

The recommendation for the law came on Feb. 6 in a presentation by Carl Shoffstall, chair of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Environmental Protection (PREP) Board, and Jerry Fogle, director of parks and recreation for the city. A staff memo provided to the commission in advance of that meeting noted that the only off-leash dog park located within a city park is in Arlington Park, but two others are under development. They have been planned for Gillespie Park and Whitaker Gateway Park, the memo pointed out.

After the March 20 discussion, the commissioners asked Fogle to look into the potential of differentiating between neighborhood parks and larger facilities — such as Bayfront and Payne parks — in establishing revised regulations.

During the May 1 staff presentation, Fogle told the board, “All of our parks are different. … That is why Sarasota is so special.”

He and his staff used information available from the nonprofit National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), he continued, to work on how best to group the city’s parks by characteristics. For example, he said, small parks are those that typically are less than 1 acre and most often are found “in an urban residential area surrounded by houses on small lots …” Each has only a few amenities, such as a garbage can and a bench, and no designated parking area. Those facilities are usually within one-half-mile or one-quarter-mile of the homes of residents who use them, he noted.

Jane Nutter Johnson and Dr. R.C. Johnson of the Sapphire Shores neighborhood address the board on May 1. News Leader photo

Other city parks with characteristics similar to those at Sapphire Shores Park, Fogle said, are Avion Park, Bonita Park, Boulevard of the Arts Park, Galvin Park, Indian Beach Park, McClellan Parkway Park and San Remo Park.

Questions and suggestions

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie asked whether Fogle and his staff comprised the parks list on the basis of comments from individuals who use those facilities or from the research. “I can think of some parks that are not on that list that meet those qualifications [Fogle had mentioned],” she pointed out.

Staff created the list on the basis of NRPA research and its own experiences, he replied.

“We have talked to the individuals in these areas,” Fogle continued. All of them, except the residents of Sapphire Shores and Indian Beach, he said, “are very concerned about having their dogs off-leash due to the traffic concerns.”

Freeland Eddie responded that some of the city’s smaller parks are in neighborhoods that do not have organized associations representing them. “I just want to make sure the list is inclusive enough,” she added.

“We didn’t look at just the dog ordinance” in creating the list, Fogle told her.

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie. File photo

The ordinance would include a process that would enable any neighborhood group to seek an exemption for a specific park, Assistant City Attorney John Shamsey explained.

Commissioner Susan Chapman told Fogle and Shamsey that her understanding of the board’s request in March was for staff to compile a list of neighborhoods whose residents wanted their parks to allow dogs to roam off-leash.

Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown replied that the board on March 20 just directed staff to consider parks similar to Sapphire Shores Park. If staff were to try to learn what the preference was for each neighborhood park in the city, Brown pointed out, “I think that’s a long process.”

“I think to go out and try to survey every neighborhood and every person … would be way too much,” Commissioner Alpert agreed with Brown.

The Sapphire Shores Park neighborhood group in March and a few residents who use Bayfront Park were the only people who had asked for an off-leash provision for a city facility, Fogle noted.

“I’m not suggesting that … we create additional work that makes it impossible for staff to do its [regular] work,” Freeland Eddie told Fogle, “and I appreciate what you’ve done.” She added that she mostly was concerned with consistency in the revised policy.

The parks he named earlier, Fogle said again, were those that fit the criteria that apply to Sapphire Shores Park.

Chapman suggested the ordinance could be revised to say, “These parks are possibly eligible for designation upon request.”

“That’s kind of what I was going to say as well,” City Manager Tom Barwin told the board.

“As far as we know,” Alpert pointed out, “people are going to be unhappy” if the board designates a park off-leash without requests to do so.

If a neighborhood or individual wants to seek an exemption for any city park, Shamsey responded, “I think the safeguards are in [the ordinance].”

Mayor Willie Shaw. File photo

Then Mayor Willie Shaw voiced concern that the commission would be required to amend the law every time another park needed to go on the exemption list. He preferred that the revised ordinance give staff the authority to approve requests, based on the procedure Shamsey had indicated. Otherwise, Shaw said, “this ordinance will have enough amendments to it to be the Constitution of the United States.”

Chapman also took the opportunity during the public hearing to ask Capt. Stiff about the number of incidents involving dogs and the public that have necessitated law enforcement intervention.

Only four have occurred since 2014, he told her.

“I think the enforcement has mainly been complaint-driven,” City Attorney Fournier pointed out.

Stiff concurred: “Normally, it’s a citizen that calls us to the park.”

After the commissioners began debating how best to ensure the public is aware of the law’s application to each park, Fournier offered his recommendation that the board allow Shamsey and Fogle to work on revising the draft. They could bring it back under Unfinished Business for the second reading, Fournier said.

As soon as Shaw closed the public hearing, Atwell made her motion.