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Parks board continues talks about alleviating ‘flagrant’ violations of leash laws

Wednesday, August 24, 2022 by Samuel Stark

Austin’s Parks and Recreation Board recommended Monday to create more fenced off-leash dog areas in the hopes of decreasing the rising number of citizens allowing their dogs to roam parklands leash-free where they are not permitted to do so. Austin currently has only 13 off-leash dog areas.

“This off-leash dog issue has just kind of evolved into a problem,” said Dawn Lewis, a parks board member who also sits on a working group tasked with investigating options to mitigate the issue.

The parks board said there has been an increase in dog owners violating city leash ordinances. Since October 2021, park rangers have recorded around 2,100 encounters with park visitors not following leash rules. 

Sarah Faust, vice chair of the parks board, said when people do not follow the proper laws, it creates equity concerns as some folks may not be comfortable visiting parks where dogs are unrestrained.

“Once the park is taken over by off-leash dogs and their users, it’s really hard for anybody else to use it for other needs,” Faust said.

The recommendation focused on creating more off-leash zones in higher-density areas, such as the Seaholm District downtown, which could decrease the trend of locals creating unofficial off-leash zones.      

“Austin does not have enough off-leash dog areas … this has led to citizens creating their own off-leash dog spaces,” said Jo Anne Norton, a member of the Animal Advisory Commission and a collaborator on the working group.

“These unofficial areas are pitting neighbors against neighbors: those who want the parkland safe for their families’ use without fear of attack by an off-leash dog, and those who feel their dogs are friendly, need to run and don’t want to travel to an off-leash area,” she continued.

The board unanimously passed the recommendation, but some members expressed their desire to increase the presence of officials in parklands who can fine citizens for not following the statutes – something that will be likely be unattainable due to the lack of funding and resources.

Police officers, park rangers and animal protection officers could interfere if a dog owner is not following leash ordinances. But there are limits to what they can do. 

The Austin Police Department does not have enough money in its budget to re-create a parks police force, Lewis said. Park rangers can only encourage voluntary compliance and do not have the authority to issue tickets. And, “we only have 21 park rangers who have a host of issues they have to deal with,” she added. 

Animal protection officers have the authority to give out citations, but do not have the jurisdiction to require someone to identify themselves – a necessary component of delivering a citation.  

“Enforcement would be great. We would love to be able to do that,” Lewis said. “What we want to do may not be perfect, but we can either do nothing, or we can try to do something to alleviate the problem.” 

The recommendation encouraged the city to continue exploring opportunities to educate the public of the importance of keeping their dogs restrained in Austin’s public parklands. Educational efforts may include increasing signage, grand-opening events for new off-leash zones and a song with lyrics encouraging Austinites to keep their dogs leashed.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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