Under fire from leash-law sticklers, the city will enshrine in law a two-decade-old unofficial policy that has allowed Lassie, Rusty and Sparky to roam free in city parks.
The proposed rule change — which would formally allow dogs to remain off-leash between 9 pm and 9 am in most parks — is an end-run around opponents of the off-leash hours, who have sued the Parks Department on the grounds that the practice is illegal and endangers human safety.
The new rules would render moot a forthcoming ruling in the case, lawyers working on the case say.
Dog owners’ groups are heartened by the development, although they’re too cautious to start yelping for joy.
“We’re not criminals, we’re not crazy,” said Mary McInerney, president of FIDO, a Prospect Park dog owners group. “[Off-leash hours] offer a legitimate form of recreation for millions throughout the city.”
But opponents, who want the city to muzzle the free-ranging pooches, are foaming at the mouth.
“[The new rules] are real, real stupid, and are really going to jeopardize the public,” said Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, the Queens group that sued to end the unofficial policy.
“Someone will be attacked, and there will be an outcry.”
Yet Holden also feels vindicated by the city’s sudden admission that it needs to formalize its “unofficial” official policy.
“We caught them,” said Holden. “They’re essentially admitting that [letting dog owners ignore leash laws between certain hours] is illegal.”
But the city contends that the unofficial policy — which has been in place for more than two decades — is not only legal, but has balanced the needs of a wide range of users.
“The policy is consistent with public health concerns and appropriate park use,” said Paula Van Meter, senior counsel for the Law Department’s administrative law division.
The courtesy hours, which were established by former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern in the 1980s, exist in a legal penumbra.
The hours technically violate the Health Department code, which requires that dogs be on-leash all the time. On the other hand, the City Charter allows the Parks Commissioner to promulgate rules within the city’s more than 28,000 acres of parkland.
And dog owners are pleased with how parks commissioners have wielded that power.
“[Letting dogs go off-leash is] a benign habit,” said Rissa Peckar, who walks her mutt Jesse in Marine Park as many as four times a week. She compares the rare unruly dog to the occasional car accident.
“You can’t stop life from happening,” she said.
The off-leash saga began when Holden’s organization sued the Parks Department in May.
The presiding judge subsequently asked the two sides to negotiate an agreement on their own. Holden says he did just that, offering to drop the lawsuit, if the Parks Department would allow individual community boards to opt out of the off-leash privileges.
The city Law Department rejected the notion of allowing community boards to veto city policies as untenable.
The rule changes are bound to clear up some legal confusion, say off-leash advocates.
“The city’s decision to rewrite the rules is needed,” said Robert Marino, president of NYCDogs. “Confusion allowed this case to go as far as it has.
“We must share limited park space. Anything that allows us to do so peacefully will promote cooperation instead of lawsuits.”