Dog owners pull against leash law

Users of R.E. Lee Park are at odds over allowing canines to roam free

March 22, 2000|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

It's a dogfight out there.

Dog lovers who want to give their pets running room at Robert E. Lee Park north of Mount Washington are fighting equally adamant advocates of leash laws. With the change of administration at City Hall, the battle has become fiercer -- and taken on political overtones.

The fate of Thomas Overton, the city's director of recreation and parks, may hang in the balance as both sides lobby Mayor Martin O'Malley with letters.

At a time when O'Malley is considering whether to replace or re-appoint Overton, those who favor a free-run dog park are campaigning against him, because he supports existing law requiring dogs to be leashed. The more established Robert E. Lee Park Conservancy has praised Overton's handling of the volatile situation, which included a brief period of issuing $100 citations to people who let their dogs run free in the city-owned park.

In an interview, Overton acknowledged the pressure he is under, especially as O'Malley's transition team has recommended hiring an interim director and as a nationwide search for a full-time director continues, a competition Overton has entered.

But nobody, including Overton, has found a way out of this canine war.

To defuse the crisis before warmer weather brings more people to the heavily used park, Overton says he would like to "mediate to find a common ground, with both groups at the table."

Conservancy leaders say they are not willing to negotiate with the Friends of Lake Roland, a group that aggressively promotes running dogs without leashes, despite city law that clearly states that all dogs must be "continuously restrained by a leash."

"Dogs can run amok, literally, with joggers, families, the elderly," Overton said. "Voice command is not proper restraint. This never was a dog park."

That is contrary to the information on a Friends of Roland Park Web site, which notes, "we have heard from some exceedingly unpleasant people that this dog park is not an approved off-leash area."

The group's founder, Kathy Homan, said, "We would prefer the park remains the way it is. We feel we're law-abiding citizens." Another member, Steven H. Halpert, says, "It's a wonderful opportunity to exercise our dogs and enjoy meeting others, off-leash."

Dog owners say it's a good place for their pets to swim and socialize.

On a recent cold March morning, lots of dogs could be seen running loose in the 500-acre park, which abuts Lake Roland, its dam and the Jones Falls. The light rail runs through it. Operated by Baltimore, the park actually lies just north of the city line in Baltimore County.

Conservancy members say dogs contribute to erosion near the water and that dog droppings pollute soil and water. Some say the park should be closed to all for a "rest" when a bridge over the Jones Falls is replaced starting in June.

Robert Macht, the president of the conservancy, has suggested a compromise -- a closed-off area just for dogs and their owners -- but so far it's gone nowhere.

"We need to teach people that the park is not their back yard," says Macht, a musician and composer who lives near the park and seeks inspiration there. "It needs to be shared."

Over the last few years, Macht says he has been attacked twice by large dogs roaming free. His young daughter was knocked down and hurt in another incident.

Macht sees his role as promoting the enforcement of the leash law in the park, along with public health and safety. "It's not as if the dogs pay taxes," he says. "It's not as if they're children."

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