By Harry Kane
An increase in recreational areas for off-leash dogs is under consideration after a recent Board of Alderman meeting on March 14. Dogs may soon be allowed more access to run free during designated times in specified open spaces.
At-Large Alderman Dennis Sullivan submitted the resolution for a program to grant dog owners and dogs more availability for off-leash play and exercise time. “The concern was that we have great dog parks here in Somerville,” Sullivan said. “But, they’re not accessible easily, except by car.”
There are currently three off-leash recreational areas in Somerville, but some residents say, not enough. Expanding access to existing parks would make life easier for dog owners.
“If you live in West Somerville, you’re driving your car to Ward 3 or Ward 1 to enjoy the dog park,” Sullivan said, referring to commuting time.
Another issue under discussion includes the overuse of dog parks by dog-walking businesses.
Sullivan often takes his dog to Zero New Washington Park. This 0.75 acre dog-playground is located at the corner of Inner belt Road, close to the Holiday Inn.
“You’ll see a van pull up and they’ll be a nondescript dog walking service, and out will come ten dogs with the dog walker. We’re augmenting that person’s business and we’re not getting anything for it,” said Sullivan.
People from Malden, Charlestown and Melrose, among other communities, are also coming to use Somerville dog parks.
Melrose resident Sheila Barry brings her 11-month-old beagle, Mia, to Zero New Washington Park because the park in Malden is not as play friendly. “This is the only park I know,” Barry said, while watching Mia play with the other dogs.
The off-leash dog initiative could seek to duplicate what the city of Brookline has done, which is named The Green Dog program. In Brookline there is an annual fee of $50 for residents and a $100 for non-residents.
Brian Davis, President of Som Dog, a non-profit organization advocating for canine rights said, “I would be shocked and surprised if the city of Somerville ever taxed a resident. I doubt that could happen.”
Davis thinks local business dog-walkers may have to pay-up for the use of the park, and that would help cover the cost for another dog officer.
“We’re pumped, because this would essentially mean that dogs would get to run in specific parks on green grass, and that would be exciting for us,” Davis said.
Ward 2 Alderman Mayann Heuston is in support of the new program but has some reservations.
“I know that there are several parks in my Ward that people are very concerned about off-leash dogs,” she said.
Lincoln Park residents are especially concerned about off-leash dogs, according to Heuston. In the past, leash laws have been violated along the bike path.
“They’ve had some issues over the years,” Heuston said. “I think we have to take it on a park-by-park basis.”
Ward 5 resident Courtney O’Keefe likes the idea of the new off-leash dog program. She said it would encourage dog owners to use these designated parks at specified times, rather than try and sneak-in with off-leashed dogs on the community path.
“To have something like this…I think would alleviate unleashed dogs in other areas where they’re not allowed to be unleashed. It’s giving residents an option, and your giving dogs an option to run freely,” O’Keefe said.
O’Keefe believes that animal control officers and Somerville Police Department have made significant progress in deterring dog owners from letting their dogs run wild along the bike path. “Even though it’s still a problem,” she said, “it’s nothing to the extent of what it used to be.”
O’Keefe just hopes that if there is an annual fee for joining the off-leash dog program, that it would cost less than the Brookline program. She’s hopeful there will be a compromise.
“It’s really about having a good harmony and a good balance between people who do own dogs and people who don’t own dogs,” she said.
Al Weisz is a Somerville resident who uses Zero New Washington Park many times a week. He has a black Labrador named Stella. “I think more off-leashed hours would be beneficial to the dogs and the city,” said Weisz. “The parks would get used. It’s a great idea.”
At-Large Alderman Bruce Desmond weighed-in with his opinion. “With this type of service or opening parks up, comes a lot of problems. People from the outside, people not following the rules, so there’s a lot of policing that goes on with this for it to go correctly,” he said.
The item has been referred to the Committee on Housing and Community Development, chaired by Ward 4 Alderman Tony Lafuente.
The Somerville Police Department, the Animal Control Department and the Som Dog organization all will be part of the community conversation.