Brooklyn dogs will have their off-leash privileges curtailed — no more Frisbee in Prospect Park’s Nethermead, no more swimming at its Dog Beach, no more romantic walks in the Long Meadow — if a Queens community group has its way.
In what city officials believe is the first lawsuit of its kind — and one that could forever change the way the city’s one million dog owners use public parks — the Juniper Park Civic Association has sued the Parks Department, claiming that its off-leash “courtesy hours” violate the law and endanger the public.
During the “courtesy hours” — between 9 pm and 9 am in most parks — dogs are allowed to roam unleashed as long as they are under the supervision of their owners. At other times, dogs are required to be on a leash of six feet or less.
This policy of not enforcing the on-the-book leash laws in city parks during off-hours has been in place for nearly 20 years.
The informal rule was devised by former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, and current Commissioner Adrian Benepe has continued the practice, calling the courtesy hours “a very Solomonic policy.”
“The system has worked pretty well for the last 20 years,” he said on WNYC this week.
The Queens lawsuit not only seeks to compel the city to enforce its leash laws, but to get the court to throw out the very notion of informal “courtesy” hours.
The lawsuit has its share of Brooklyn-based supporters, who argue that parks have become, for all intents and purposes, dog runs. One of them has even started a blog — brooklynparks.blogspot.com — to document abuses of courtesy hours.
“Dog owners display an attitude of entitlement when it comes to using public places as dog runs,” said Rob Jett, the founder of the Web site. “I used to enjoy walks in the park in the morning or late afternoon. [But] because of the ubiquity of unrestrained dogs, I no longer enter the park during those times.”
Meanwhile, the assault on the courtesy hours has dog-advocacy organizations in a lather.
“Everyone is extremely concerned, to put it mildly,” said Mary McInerney, president of FIDO (Fellowship in the Interest of Dogs and Their Owners), a Prospect Park group.
To put it less mildly, McInerney added: “People are freaking out.”
McInerney has two dogs — a Labrador retriever named Angie and a Golden retriever name Scout, both of whom favor Prospect Park’s Peninsula in the wee hours of the morning.
When McInerney walks her dogs then, she rarely encounters anyone but dog owners — aside from a few joggers and birders, she said.
The presence of dogs — and their owners — increases public safety, she argued.
McInerney said she once came to the aid of a park patron who had just been mugged on the Lullwater Trail. McInerney — who was in the park with her dogs — was able to identify the muggers, and they were ultimately convicted.
The Parks Department would not comment on the issue due to ongoing litigation, but the Prospect Park Alliance said it supports the dog owners.
“We love having FIDO here,” said Alliance President Tupper Thomas. “Dog owners being out and visible has always been important to assuring people Prospect Park is safe.”
But Holden scoffs that dog owners do anything other than endanger other park users.
“Yeah, maybe it’ll get rid of some of the muggers, but it’s also going to endanger the public with unleashed dogs,” said Holden. “Benepe is playing Russian roulette with the public, and we’re at the end of the gun.”
The judge presiding over the case has adjourned it until Aug. 29.
©2006 Community Newspaper Group
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