County bans loose pooches in local parks

Future 'bark parks' must meet stringent standards

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By BILL DWYER

The party is over for pooches in Oak Park for the time being, at least as far as frolicking off leash in public spaces is concerned. The Park District of Oak Park was ordered by the Cook County Department of Animal and Rabies Control (DARC) last week to "cease and desist" allowing dogs to run off leash in village parks, pursuant to legislation that became effective last June 1. Under those regulations, the park district must file a written plan with DARC for any dog park it intends to create. It may not operate any dog park that is not fenced in and does not comply with a host of requirements set by the County.

The County's decision is undergirded by a November 2003 legal opinion from Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine's office. That opinion states that the DARC's authority "extends throughout Cook County, including within municipalities and other entities such as park districts and forest preserve districts." While there isn't unanimity regarding the legal grounding of the County's new law, both Gary Balling, park district executive director, and David Kindler, park board president, said they planned to work with and not against the County.

"We're not interested in going back into court or picking a fight with Cook County over a legal issue," said Kindler.

The Park District will meet with residents at a special meeting tonight at Field Center, 945 Woodbine at 7 p.m. The park board will then discuss the issue at its regular bi-monthly meeting Thursday at its headquarters, 218 Madison St., at 7:30 p.m.

Balling said Monday that he's already spoken with a number of dog owners in the past few days, as has Kindler. Balling said that while they understand the County's reasons for the actions, they're still disappointed. Kindler said many dog owners will miss the social opportunities dog parks offer their dogs.

"They really cherish this time with their dogs," he said.

Village resident Noah Shlaes said he's certainly enjoyed the social aspects of taking his dog to Lindberg Park?#34;both for himself and his dog?#34;for the past five years?#34;but that's changed. Over the past several weeks, there's been stricter enforcement of the 8 a.m. cutoff for off-leash play by Oak Park police.

Last Saturday, Shlaes said, he noticed a Cook County Animal Control van at the park. He walked over and talked with the man inside, whom he described as polite. He told Shlaes he was "just observing." Next week, though, the man said, the County would be writing citations costing "around a hundred dollars and up."

The tightened enforcement, the official told Shlaes, was being conducted county-wide, not just in Oak Park. When Shlaes said that his group at Lindberg was pretty effective at policing themselves and cleaning up afterward, the official told him it didn't matter, that it's illegal, and if he's sent back to the park, he'll enforce it.

Balling said the park district identified the need for one or more dog parks during the process of the district's master plan, noting that $25,000 has been set aside to fund an initial review of potentially appropriate sites for future dog parks. That process will take some time, though, Balling acknowledged Monday.

Dr. Dan G. Parmer, the administrator of DARC, has said that his office will happily work with the park district or village in developing a plan for a facility or facilities that meet County standards. While Balling said the cost of actually designing and building a dog park is "not that great," he cautioned that the bigger task at hand will be identifying appropriate locations for such facilities that met with neighborhood acceptance. Any process, he said, must include extensive dialogue with neighbors to assure that any dog park fits in with the neighborhood.

"It's probably as complicated as identifying a space for a skate park," Balling said, referring to the long controversy over the facility at Stevenson Park. "A lot of discussion is needed with the community."

Kindler agreed, saying, "We can't rush into building a dog park on a permanent basis without neighborhood input. We need to take a little time to do this right."

In any event, no future off leash facility will be unfenced.

"It's clear that nowhere do they have unfenced dog parks like we had," said Kindler.

The new Cook County dog park regulations require park districts and municipalities?#34;and private facility owners, if any?#34;to adhere to a number of standards when designing off-leash dog facilities:

1. The area must be completely enclosed, with entrances designed to prevent accidental opening.

2. Rules and regulations must be prominently displayed.

3. Dogs must be on leash when entering and leaving the park.

4. Dogs set free within the park must be licensed locally, and have proof that they are free from various infections, parasites and other diseases, including rabies.

5. A written plan for any park must be filed with the DARC administrator.

6. A park operator must institute a system of surveillance to assure dog owner compliance with all regulations, and must allow the County to monitor and enforce such compliance as deemed necessary.

7. All dog parks must have leak-proof containers for storage of waste materials and must empty those containers frequently so as to maintain sanitary conditions.

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