NEWBURYPORT — If it’s true, as local politicians say, that repair of roads and sidewalks is the most heartfelt issue in the city, then the care and well-being of dogs could rank a close second.
At the City Council’s regular meeting Monday night, members heard strong opposition to a recommendation that would eliminate off-leash hours for canines at Cashman Park.
The matter was sent to the council’s Licenses and Permits Committee, but not before almost 20 dog owners spoke against such a ban.
The issue has come before the council many times in the past, as noted by Council President Tom O’Brien, who urged speakers to limit the length of their remarks.
The discussion was ignited after Parks Department director Lise Reid submitted a memo to municipal leaders stating that there have been “persistent conflicts” since the inception of the off-leash program at the riverfront park.
“Such conflicts are potentially harmful to the general public,” she said, and “the Parks Commission advises that ‘shared use’ of Cashman Park is not working.”
The commission recommended an elimination of Cashman Park as an off-leash location, the director said.
Municipal leaders have been working for several years to develop an off-leash program that is satisfactory to all stakeholders.
Many local residents have dogs and finding a location where they can exercise off the leash has been a priority. But families with young children and/or pedestrians seeking solitude in parks are sometimes affronted by the animals.
Reid says she has received complaints about “pack behavior” and “residents who have been inappropriately accosted” by dogs at Cashman.
“The Parks Commission looked at several alternatives and abandoned the idea of a barrier between the river walk and the off-leash area based on the high cost of doing so and the challenge of creating a barrier that is both truly effective and aesthetically appealing,” Reid wrote in her report.
Councilors have regard for the political standing of dog holders, and in the past several years have studied the matter closely.
The council created a pilot program so they could assess the success of off-leash areas. Newburyport has three parks where dogs are allowed off-leash: Cashman Park, from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.; Moseley Woods, dawn to 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. to dusk; and March’s Hill, same hours as Moseley.
In the discussion before the council of a possible ban, several residents who say they live near the park as well as being dog walkers themselves stated they have not witnessed “pack behavior” or aggressive activity from dogs.
One woman confided she is a cancer patient, and the companionship of her dog on outdoor walks is an important part of her life; another said he relocated to Newburyport in part because he felt it offered parks and procedures that would make his dogs comfortable.
Karen Popken, a member of the Parks Commission, said, “I profoundly disagree with the commission’s recommendation.” She suggested that the sentiment to eliminate Cashman as an off-leash area came from emails and anecdotes rather than a close study of the matter.
Several speakers noted that the city has just hired an animal control officer — Robert Steach of Manchester — and the suggested councilors should wait until he provides professional assessment before a change of policy is considered.
Joel Rusnak, a Merrimac Street resident who said he uses the park almost every day with his dogs, commented, “Right now a lot of owners don’t know the rules. There should be better signage. And until recently there wasn’t an animal control officer.
”I’m hopeful the council committee can study the issue, because there really isn’t a problem there.”
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