Parks act after dog owners bare teeth over off-leash ban

Ridgeland Common space will be temporary dog run

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By BILL DWYER

A long and contentious week that saw the Park District of Oak Park confronted by a pack of angry and frustrated dog owners concluded on a positive note Monday morning. Park district, village and county officials met at Ridgeland Common to discuss legally appropriate ways to deal with establishing an off-leash dog facility there.

The meeting came in the wake of heated reaction by scores of dog owners in the village following the announcement last week that the Cook County Department of Animal and Rabies Control had banned off-leash dogs throughout the village, including previously permitted weekend programs in Lindberg Park and Ridgeland Common. The county move came after a series of complaints to local and county enforcement officials from at least one homeowner in the Lindberg Park area, and after what Cook County's animal and rabies control administrator, Dan G. Parmer, said was 18 months of warnings from his office.

Besides Parmer, officials present Monday included parks Executive Director Gary Balling, Village Manager Carl Swenson, Public Health Director Georgeen Polyak, and Mike Grandy, superintendent of buildings and grounds for the park district. After a 40 minute meeting, the group inspected an area directly south of the east softball diamond's third base line. An approximately 50 foot by 130 foot area is already paved, and has aluminum fence posts already in place. Balling said that the existing fencing would be extended some 40 or 50 feet to the west, encompassing the eastern tip of the sledding hill along the elevated tracks.

Balling said he couldn't give a date certain for the facility to open.

"There are variables out of our control," he said. "We're approaching this with a sense of urgency."

"We are going to be developing a permit (process), so there'll likely be a fee involved, so we can properly maintain it and staff it," Balling said. "We'll try to get this on line as quickly as we can," he said.

Balling stressed that the Ridgeland Common site was "a temporary solution," but didn't rule out its permanent use in the future. Though the site has the benefit of being already paved and separated from the closest neighboring residences by over 400 feet, Balling insisted that any permanent site must be agreed upon over the course of public input, a position supported by the park commissioners.

"Our plan is to have a larger dialogue with the whole community ... before the first of the year," said Balling.

Some dog owners had initially questioned the right of the county to intervene in local animal control issues. However, it quickly became apparent that the county was on firm legal ground. Park district attorney Mark Burkland told the park board Thursday that while there may be questions about the details of the county's regulations, there is no question that the county has the legal right to exert oversight authority in villages and parks throughout Cook County.

"We can't really say they have no jurisdiction. They do," he said.

Parmer said Monday that his department's position was in fact backed up by both county and state statute, and that he didn't understand the animosity expressed toward his office.

"It's very simple," he said. "Every dog has to have all its shots, it has to have an examination to see if it has a communicable disease, and it has to have a stool sample. The veterinarian signs (a form), owners go to the park district and get a permit, and in they go."

Parmer said that the examination and stool sample were key.

"That's why everybody should want this. So that when your dog gets on my dog, you know they're safe," he said.

Beyond that permit process, Parmer said that the county requires that a village or park district provide a fenced enclosure with double gated entrances that guard against dogs inadvertently being released. Any such enclosures must also be utilized solely for running dogs. Noting the safety and legal liability issues attendant to loose dogs in public places, Parmer added that the health of both humans and dogs is a paramount consideration. Many people, he said, don't realize how many diseases can be contracted from dogs.

"Of the 110 major diseases identified by the Center for Disease Control," said Parmer, "37 can be passed from dogs to humans."

Dog owners blister park board

For their part, dog owners reacted last week to what they perceived as dogs being a chronically low priority on the park district's agenda. Despite the White Sox being on the verge of their first World Series title in 88 years, those owners were out in force last Wednesday evening, with nearly 90 people packing Field Center both to question park district officials and to vent their anger. One after another, they expressed frustration that there is still no permanent dog park, despite years of working with the district. Several blistered park district officials for what they perceived as at best indifference and at worst opposition to the collective interests of dog owners.

The speakers made it clear that they won't allow the issue to fade away this time without a satisfactory permanent resolution that involved one, and better two, permanent dog parks in the village, sooner rather than later.

"We've been talking about dog parks ad nauseam for years,' said one woman. "Let's find some space for a dog park. There's plenty of space in Oak Park," she said to great applause.

"It's one step forward, 12 steps back," responded another woman.

"Recall election, that's what we need," interjected someone from the back.

"We've got Forest Park next door," said another person. "Much smaller tax base, much smaller village. We should be able to do this." Forest Park has had a dog park for several years.

Park board President David Kindler said the reason the park district hadn't made permanent dog parks a priority is that "we had something that was working" in the off-leash permit program.

Another commissioner, Tom Philion, said that the emotions being expressed were all part of a positive and necessary process.

"I don't see any bad guys in this," said Philion. "I see messiness. I see a lot of perspectives."

Those perspectives were reiterated just as insistently, if with a bit more decorum, by a far smaller group of dog owners Thursday evening at the regular bi-monthly park board meeting. Commissioners had been prepared to reauthorize off-leash permits through next March at the Thursday night board meeting. Instead they authorized Balling to take all necessary steps to comply with county regulations, committing to fast tracking a dog park with an eye toward having a permanent facility by March, 2006.

Looking for alternatives

Meanwhile dog owners are looking about for acceptable alternatives for running their pets. When the ban first went into effect a week ago Monday, county officials were simply monitoring Lindberg and Ridgeland Common. Last weekend County Animal Control officers were out in force, with three units reportedly stationed around Lindberg Park.

"There were maybe 15 dogs with their owners around 6:30 Saturday morning," said Gus Johansen, one of the officers present Saturday. He said he wrote no citations.

Village Manager Swenson was noncommittal about the possible use of any village owned land for future dog facilities, but said Monday that the village stood ready to assist the park district deal with the issue, saying, "We want to support a solution." Swenson added that the county, which controls vast tracts of forest preserve land, could also play a role.

"We've asked for the county to look (into using) forest preserve land," said Swenson, who urged as regional a solution as possible.

Suzanne Greene, an attorney and dog owner who spoke forcefully at both the Wednesday and Thursday night meetings, said she believed the owners had gotten their points across.

"Oh, I think they've got it. I think they heard us. Absolutely," said Greene.

The board also heard more than just criticism. People offered both ideas and assistance. Several suggested Ridgeland Common as the best candidate for retrofitting as a temporary location, and possibly a permanent dog park. Equally important, both money and volunteer help appears to be available. Lindberg Park area resident Les Golden said that he'd estimated that fencing in an adequately sized area in Lindberg would cost approximately $3,600. He was, he said, donating half that amount to the park district, with the hope that 100 other people would donate $18 a piece to make up the balance.

Another man said that he could have 20 volunteers to work on Ridgeland Common.

Greene expressed qualified approval of the park board's actions.

"It seems the motion (authorizing Balling to proceed) is a step in the right direction," she said. "There is an urgency about this, given that the parks have been shut down entirely."

Greene added that she hoped the board would maintain that sense of urgency.

"We need satisfactory solutions, first in the short term and then in the long term," she said.

CONTACT: bdwyer@wjinc.com

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