Unleashed dogs not targeted by proposed ordinance

Board tells dog owners that leash law will not be enforced

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

The Selectboard told concerned dog owners Monday that a proposed bike path and sidewalk ordinance would not prevent canines from running free — even though existing rules requires all dogs to be leashed.

Board members and Town Manager Rick McGuire said the proposed ordinance would not be vigorously enforced unless the town received complaints. Public Works Director Neil Boyden said he could not remember receiving a complaint about dog behavior on the town’s bike path and sidewalk in the past eight to 10 years.

“We’re not going to be out there patrolling,” Boyden said.

Dog owners who spoke at the meeting said they frequently walked their unleashed dogs on the stretch of the bike path that runs through Community Park, typically in the early morning hours. They said they maintained control of their dogs and avoided conflicts with other path users.

The town already has a dog control ordinance that forbids dogs from running free unless the dog is being used for hunting or is being trained for hunting. Therefore, people who allow their unleashed dogs on the town’s bike paths or sidewalks are already subject to a fine. However, the ordinance is not strictly enforced.

The proposed bike path and sidewalk ordinance, which the Selectboard will consider approving at a future meeting, includes regulations on uses of the path and sidewalks. A provision that prohibited motorized uses was altered at Monday’s meeting at the suggestion of Planning Commission member Kevin Batson to permit motorized wheelchairs and other vehicles for the handicapped.

McGuire and Boyden told the concerned dog owners that the ordinance was not developed to limit the current uses on the paths and sidewalks, including the practice of allowing dogs to run free. They said the ordinance was designed to limit the liability of property owners who allow paths to cross their property.

The town is currently speaking with property owners to ask for easements that would allow for construction of future paths.

Three property owners spoke at the ordinance hearing, asking questions about potential liability for incidents off the path and about the behavior of those using it.

“Our biggest fear is an uncontrolled impact on our property and our lifestyle,” said John Butterfield, a North Williston Road resident.

Kerstin Hanson, a North Williston Road resident, asked why the town was passing the ordinance if it was going to look the other way when it came to enforcement.

McGuire said the town would not ignore infractions, but would make enforcement decisions based on the complaints it receives.

Both dog owners and property owners ultimately seemed satisfied with the ordinance and with the municipal officials’ explanation of its enforcement.

Selectboard members seemed surprised by the lively crowd of 14 who attended the hearing.

“Last week, I ran a public hearing in Brattleboro with 700 people on nuclear waste and it was quieter than this,” said Selectboard Chairwoman Ginny Lyons.

In light of a recent dog bite complaint, Selectboard member Terry Macaig, the town health officer, said he has never received a report of a dog bite case at the community bike path.