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In parks battle, dogs make up the flash point

Dog owners, park users see no middle ground when it comes to off-leash areas

There's one nasty dogfight raging over canines who run free in Portland city parks.

Ask the mother of a 3-year-old after she tried to stop a woman from throwing a golf ball to her large off-leash dog into the water at Northwest's Jamison Park while children were playing there last summer.

'I asked her to throw it in another direction,' the woman wrote anonymously on the Web site leashyourdog.com, which encourages users to report illegal off-leash activity to Multnomah County Animal Control.

'She went ballistic and called me an 'uptight bitch.' When she finally left, she walked quite a ways out of her way to tell me I didn't belong in the park because I didn't live in the neighborhood. She said there was some kind of tacit agreement that this park was meant for dogs and the rest of us could go to hell. She then insulted my appearance and my children and left.'

In this dog-eat-dog world, dogs are now the city's No. 1 parks-related complaint:

People contact Portland Parks & Recreation at least once a day about failure to pick up dog waste; children who have been frightened by loose dogs; dog-caused injuries, such as the broken neck suffered last year by a man who was knocked off his bicycle by an off-leash dog in Southeast's Mount Tabor Park; and dogs that have injured each other or been killed by traffic because they were allowed off leash in violation of city and county law.

At the same time, pet owners who let their dogs off leash say they are forced to break the law because the city has only 25 acres of legal off-leash area for the county's 66,960 licensed dogs. And all but 1.5 of the acres are clustered in North Portland, where fewer dog owners live.

But both park users who let their dogs off leash and other park users without dogs agree that responsibility for the conflict lies with the city. According to a recent study done by five Portland State University graduate students in urban planning, the city has not adequately enforced existing leash laws, created sufficient official off-leash space or been responsive to the public's needs with regard to off-leash areas.

The City Council will weigh in on the issue Wednesday, when it is expected to approve providing the county with $60,000 to enforce the leash laws. But, at the same time, there is no money in the city budget, scheduled to be approved Thursday, for expansion of the off-leash area program.

In October 2001, the parks department asked Portland's seven neighborhood coalitions to recommend sites for additional off-leash areas. Of the four coalitions that agreed to make such recommendations, three have made formal reports to the parks department since January; however, no action has been taken on the recommendations.

On Monday, parks spokeswoman Sarah Bott said the department sees its plan for dogs in parks as a 'three-legged stool.'

The first leg, she said, is the enforcement whose funding is being voted on Wednesday. The second is public education about dogs and dog ownership, which Bott said parks will start soon. And the third is creation of additional off-leash areas, which Bott said will come at an unspecified date in the future.

That news doesn't please Tom Morgan, a Mount Tabor neighborhood resident who walks the park with his unleashed dogs twice a day.

'We can conquer just about everything except Ñ for some reason Ñ this off-leash area thing,' he says, unwittingly echoing former parks Director Charles Jordan, who described dogs in parks as 'the No. 1 challenge in my entire career that I tell my boss I don't know how to solve.' Jordan, who retired earlier this year, has been succeeded by Zari Santner.

'Dog owners have no one to speak for them,' Morgan says. 'We're so fragmented: young, old, gay, straight. The only thing we have in common is having dogs.'

Troubles forecast

For decades, both the city and the county have required that dogs be leashed in public areas. In 1978, the city ceded most of its animal-control authority to the county.

In 1995, a consultant hired by the city to study the establishment of off-leash areas in city parks found dog-related problems throughout the park system and a 'growing polarization' around the issue.

While both dog owners and park users without dogs seemingly agreed that off-leash exercise and play contribute to healthy, well-socialized and good-tempered dogs, not everyone thought that it was the city's responsibility to provide areas for such use.

The consultant also pointed out that Portland Ñ compared to other cities with about the same number of acres of parkland Ñ had the lowest level of resources for enforcement of leash and scoop laws. Most of the problems cited were at Mount Tabor Park.

A year later, the parks department established test off-leash areas at Mount Tabor and at Gabriel Park in Southwest Portland. It also made all of Chimney Park Ñ an undeveloped 16-acre park in North Portland Ñ an off-leash area.

The test was not particularly successful, says Evelyn Brenes, who was Jordan's assistant.

'At the time, off-leash areas were relatively new to the country,' she says. 'We had virtually no public input. And we didn't predict how fast the turf would deteriorate. Once the off-leash area got muddy and ugly, dog owners, instead of using leashes in other parts of these parks, would just disregard the law and allow their dogs to be off leash everywhere.'

As a result of these and other problems, including concerns about dog feces near Mount Tabor's uncovered water reservoirs, the park's off-leash area was closed in 1999. Chimney Park and part of Gabriel Park remain as off-leash areas, and East and West Delta parks now also have off-leash areas.

In April and May this year, the PSU urban studies students, whose 'Inquiry Into Portland's Canine Quandary' has just been completed, visited 12 neighborhood parks in an attempt to determine which had the highest numbers of dogs allowed off leash. The top three were:

• Laurelhurst, whose neighborhood association was the first (in 1993) to complain to the city about troublesome dogs.

• Mount Tabor, where Brenes says the bicyclist broke his neck last year when a large dog knocked him over.

• Gabriel, where Brenes says dog owners typically don't leash their pets anywhere in the park.

The students did not visit Forest or Washington parks.

The fact that dogs continue to be exercised off leash at Laurelhurst and Mount Tabor is, according to their owners and the PSU students, both predictable and understandable. They emphasize the lack of off-leash acreage, pointing out that Vancouver, B.C., with a population roughly comparable to Portland's, has 29 parks with designated off-leash areas or hours compared with Portland's four. They also point out that only two of Portland's areas are open all year.

But the real problem, dog owners and the students say, is the location of the four off-leash areas.

'Mount Tabor has the highest number of dogs living within a quarter mile of it of any park in Portland,' says Jeff Gilmour, one of the PSU students who mapped the addresses of 47,908 of the county's 66,960 licensed dogs. 'Could this have contributed to its eventual demise as an off-leash park?'

North and Southwest Portland, where all four of the off-leash areas are located, have relatively low dog populations, according to the student study. Inner and outer Southeast Portland, which have by far the highest dog populations per quarter mile of the seven Portland neighborhood coalitions, have no official off-leash areas at all.

'I live in Sellwood,' says Marychris Maas, president of the PSU students' client agency, the appropriately named C-Spot (Citizens for Safe Parks With Off-Leash Territory). 'Sellwood, Johnson Creek and Westmoreland parks are all by my house. Instead, while Portland promotes non-car use, I have to drive across town (to Gabriel Park) several times a week.

'It's time to wake up and admit you live in a city,' Maas says. 'Not every park has to be a wildlife park.'

Bad problem gets worse

Meanwhile, the conflict continues.

Joe Manning, a Mount Tabor jogger who was bitten by an off-leash dog at the park earlier this month, says he will be happy to see the enforcement.

'I love dogs,' says Manning, who was treated at a nearby hospital. 'We had dogs growing up; we took them to the beach. But without a leash, you have no control. It's like driving a car without brakes.

'It's gotten worse and worse,' Manning says of off-leash dogs at Mount Tabor. 'And it's not going to stop until the county or the city do something about it. It's obvious nobody's doing a thing.'

But Paul Martinez, another Mount Tabor Park user who jogs with his dogs, predicts that the city's plan to increase enforcement without adding the third leg of the stool Ñ increased off-leash space Ñ will just cause additional trouble.

'I see very few people who are really unhappy (about the off-leash dogs),' he says. 'It's a very vocal minority. There are more dog owners than there are families in the Portland area. The city has let it go as far as it has. To crack down now is unrealistic. If they really crack down Ñ if they just strike back at all the dog owners Ñ the owners may strike back at city parks.

'It's really a long-standing issue,' Martinez says. 'There's never been a solution.'

Contact Janine Robben at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..