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Free-range dogs still a bone of contention

In the dog-greet-dog world of St. Petersburg, they'd better be on leashes. The home of an estimated 33,000 dogs has no park for them yet.

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Will Rocky, the dog, become Rocky, the jailbird?

photo
[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Guiness rests on the North Shore Beach sea wall after discovering that, at 112 pounds, he's too heavy to get over the wall after playing with his owner, Brian Walker.
His owner, Paul Dickens, knows he does not have a leg to stand on.

"We're breaking the law," Dickens said. "No doubt."

Until recently, Rocky, a boxer, was part of a pack that gathered at North Shore Park on most afternoons, taken off-leash by their owners to socialize and run unfettered in the area that has been informally named Dog Beach.

"It's a doggy social," said Barbara Dunbar, a Realtor who has several listings in that area. "They appear to know each other as they run around. It's really cute."

It is also illegal.

"The ordinance now is that dogs are not allowed to run off-leash," said Lee Metzger, head of the city's Department of Leisure Services.

And after at least one resident complained, police officers patrolling the area have warned dog owners that they face fines -- or arrest -- if they continue to defy the law.

"It's equivalent to a misdemeanor," said Maj. Tim Story of the St. Petersburg Police Department, "with a fine of $57. And you could be arrested the first time. This is something that comes up periodically. North Shore has become an issue again."

And so lines have been drawn in this battle over bucolic greensward.

"No harm is being done," said Dickens, an accountant.

Some beg to differ. "How would you like to have 40 to 60 big dogs running wild?" asked Leonard McCue, a lawyer who lives across the street from North Shore Park and has called the Police Department and Mayor David Fischer's officer about the situation. "We have a dog. But we keep him on a leash."

Police Maj. Story said that number "is an exaggeration. We've never counted more than about 20. But if you see that many, it can look like a lot more."

Objections, he said, range from "someone stepping in dog poop" to "wanting to take your kids out or to play soccer and not being able to because so many dogs are around."

"There's no other place to take them," said Will Clonts, who took Genevieve, a Weimaraner, and Tok, a miniature husky, to North Shore for an off-leash run Wednesday afternoon.

"We're not asking for much," said Kathy Helmuth, director of communications for the Juvenile Welfare Board who owns a yellow Labrador retriever and two Vizslas. "We would be happy with a fenced-in area."

At the heart of the issue is some dog owners' contention that the city should provide conveniently located dog parks.

Dog parks, fenced property where canines can legally be taken off the leash, are becoming more commonplace in urban areas as dog ownership grows. The Web site -- http://www.dogpark.com -- which tracks them, lists 495 parks in the United States, an increase of 21 in just one month. St. Petersburg, which has an estimated 33,000 registered dogs, according to Dr. Welch Agnew, assistant director of the county's veterinary services, has been slow to bite on the trend.

"We're being cautious," said Metzger, the parks and recreation director. "Some people have concerns about them. We don't anticipate any problems. The idea is, "Let's try one.' "

The city's first proposed dog park is a 1-acre site on Coquina Key. If the City Council approves it after public hearings in March, the city will fence it in and add water fountains and a small picnic shelter at a cost between $15,000 and $19,000.

"It is a test site," Metzger said. "We'll see how it works for a year."

"I probably would not take my dogs there," said Helmuth, who lives in the Old Northeast neighborhood. "It's too far."

Coquina Key is not intended as the only dog park in the city, said Cliff Footlick, park operations manager. "We see four parks in different areas. We want to pick our places carefully and have the support of the neighborhood associations."

A dog park was discussed in North Shore several years ago, on land near the baseball field, said Lane Lastinger, at the time president of its neighborhood association.

"The city didn't want to use that space, so close to the water," he said. "The idea just sort of lost steam."

The Crescent Lake neighborhood is now a potential spot for a second dog park.

"There's about an acre at Seventh Street and 13th Avenue, east of the tennis courts, that would be perfect," Clifford Holensworth, president of the neighborhood association, said. "We talked about it in February and will get more information, then take a vote in April."

Despite the recent flurry of attention, the Police Department has records of only two "incidents" involving dogs not on leashes in the last two weeks, said Morris McGough, the lieutenant in charge of research and analysis.

"We don't have a lot of dog complaints," said Mayor Fischer.

"Parks are for people," said North Shore resident McCue.

"To some families, their dogs are their kids," said Crescent Lake's Holensworth. "If you create a playground for children, everyone says that's great. Why can't dogs have a playground?"

For now, dogs will not have their day, off-leash anyway.

"I hope people understand the law and comply with it," Metzger said. "These are people who care about their pets. The history so far is that they police themselves very well."

"But there is a leash law," said Maj. Story.

"I've been charged (by unleashed dogs) a number of times," McCue said. "Only when they came after my dog did I call about it."

"There are occasional tussles," said Dickens. "That's normal. But when they're not on their own property, they're not territorial."

"That's a generalization," said Dr. Soraya Juarbe-Diaz, a certified animal behaviorist. "Any time you allow a dog to run off-leash, you take a chance."

Still, are dogs being given the short end of the stick?

"We have the same issues with skateboarders," Metzger said.

And bicyclists who ride on sidewalks?

"That's also a no-no," said Sherman Smith, staff attorney for the Police Department, though both Smith and Story said rarely is a cyclist stopped by a police officer.

Many dog owners seem to have moved to other waterfront parks after increased police scrutiny along North Shore. On Wednesday afternoon, only a handful of dogs came for a play date.

In a Jan. 9 memo to City Council member Kathleen Ford, police Chief Goliath Davis wrote that "Community Police Officer Jacques LaMonde ... has issued approximately 50 warnings to dog owners who had their dogs unleashed in the park. It is Officer LaMonde's intent to start citing citizens who violate this ordinance once warned. With this in mind, we are emphasizing the education phase of this problem before enforcement action is taken."

"We encourage our officers to use discretion," Story said. "These are law-abiding citizens. Someone with an unleased dog does not deserve to go to prison."

For now Paul Dickens and Rocky are lying low in their Kenwood neighborhood while the fur flies on the waterfront.

"It isn't worth getting arrested over," said Dickens.

"Let sleeping dogs lie," said Mayor Fischer.

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