Frustration over city leash law inspires unconventional legal challenge

Fined pet owners say city needs to make good on promise for more dog parks

  • Dawn Conte is challenging the city's leash law after getting tickets for each of her chocolate labs, Lilac, left, and Snickers, who were recently caught running without leashes in a park.
Dawn Conte is challenging the city's leash law after getting… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
November 04, 2010|By Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun

After Dawn Conte unclipped the leashes of her two Labradors to let them chase a ball in Patterson Park last summer, she walked home with a hefty ticket — $200 for each unrestrained dog and more charges because the animals weren't wearing their tags.

Thursday, before Baltimore's Environmental Control Board, Conte will challenge that fine, but instead of arguing "I didn't do it," she'll try a slightly more complex version of "Why shouldn't I do it?"

The 39-year-old appraisal archivist wants the fines to be dropped, but she also wants to make a statement on behalf of Baltimore pet owners who believe city officials would rather ticket them than work with them to establish legal spots for dogs to run free.

"I want something bigger to come out of this," Conte said this week. "I have a 155-acre park across the street from my house — there's got to be a place somewhere in there where I can let them run."

The gist of Conte's argument is this: In 2009, the city passed a law that not only set leash violation fines but established a framework for creating more legal dog parks and hours when dogs could play in existing parks. Conte's attorney, Robert E. Joyce, an animal lover who is taking the case pro bono, will essentially argue that because Baltimore hasn't kept up its end of the bargain with the parks, the rest of the law shouldn't apply either.

The situation reveals the frustration of a dog owners in a city with just three legal spots to run them, a quality-of-life conflict simmering most passionately in the city's gentrified neighborhoods.

"The only thing the city has followed through with is the fines," Joyce says. "They don't bother with the other mandate of the law."

While Conte's challenge might tap into the local pet-lover's zeitgeist, its legal grounds might be a little shaky.

"That may be a platform for political purposes, but I don't think there's any legal legs to that argument," says Byron Warnken, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. "Merely because the government doesn't do something, that doesn't make the law any less the law."

The law Joyce points to was passed in May 2009. It lowered Baltimore's penalty for having an off-leash dog from $1,000 to $200 — after a fiery, hours-long hearing, and after about 1,600 people, mainly dog owners, signed a petition urging officials to reconsider.

Though it had long been illegal to let dogs off leash anywhere in the city, the law was so loosely enforced that many dog owners didn't know it existed until people started getting the $1,000 tickets. "We were always criminals," one Bolton Hill dog owner at the hearing observed. "We just didn't know it for a long time."

But dog owners cheered when the City Council reduced the fines — and were even more encouraged when shortly thereafter, parks officials began meeting with residents to talk about making room for dogs in four city parks — Riverside Park, Wyman Park, Herring Run and Patterson Park.

Last winter, it all stopped.

Mayor Sheila Dixon, a dog-park supporter, resigned. Her parks and recreation director left. Activists who'd spent months drafting dog park options and rallying community support suddenly couldn't get their phone calls returned.

"We were on our way, and then it just fizzled," says Ian Ruiz, a 46-year-old engineer who has spent a lot of time trying to get a dog outlet in Riverside Park. "It was basically dead in the water."

So, like so many other dog owners, Ruiz has turned to a stance of habitual civil disobedience, freeing his terrier mix, Scotty, to chase Frisbees.

This week at Patterson Park, dozens of people gathered in the shadow of the pagoda, watching as their leashless dogs frolicked in the leaves. They persist despite near-daily warnings from park rangers.

Near the park's fenced-in playground, someone took a rock or a key to the "No dogs allowed" sign, fruitlessly trying to scratch off the "no" as if that would make a difference. Similarly in Bolton Hill, as soon as a fence went up for a tot lot, someone yanked down the "no pets" signs and the area quickly became a de facto dog zone.

If the Environmental Control Board rejects Joyce's argument, the attorney plans to appeal through the Baltimore City Circuit Court.

Though dog park creation is a hot-button issue in cities across the country — it seems a battle is always under way somewhere — City Councilman Bill Cole says Baltimore is a bit behind for a larger city, only recently christening its first dog park, the Canton Dog Park in the southeastern part of the city.

Cole knows all about the tension of urban dog ownership. With two poodle mixes of his own, Camden and Raven, he wants more outlets for them in the city, but his office also fields constant complaints about off-leash dogs.

"This had become a real issue that speaks to the changing demographics of Baltimore and the changing face of the neighborhoods," he says."I think everybody agrees we should do something."

Recreation and parks director Gregory Bayor, on the job since April, says despite the public's perception, he's strongly in favor of dog parks and is now laying the groundwork to potentially create fenced-in dog areas in Patterson and Riverside parks. He's not as interested in establishing off-leash hours.

Money, however, is holding him back.

"The department welcomes dog parks, they make perfect sense," he says. "But we are so broke we can't afford to build them."

Bayor would like to start at Patterson and Riverside parks and construct extremely bare-bones dog areas — not much more than a fenced-in spot, essentially a corral where one could hook up a water hose. Private dog-park supporters would have to bear the costs and responsibility for maintenance.

"The demand is certainly there," Bayor agrees. "If someone wants to pay for them, we'll give them the space."

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