A vague leash law ordinance isn't restraining one group from working to find a compromise for when and where dogs should be leashed.
Erika Morris and Amy Sarbinowski are two members of the Darien Dog Owners Group who are looking at ways to keep dogs off of leashes all the time while still acknowledging the community and public safety.
"We're the only town that doesn't have a an off-leash law and the state law is very vague," Sarbinowski said.
According to state law, a dog can be off leash as long as it doesn't roam on another person's land or on a public highway, including sidewalks, and as long it is under the owner's control. Local governments may create leash ordinances.
Sarbinowski said the Representative Town Meeting drafted language that would create a policy for the entire town, but because the language in the ordinance kept changing, the RTM decided to defer the ordinance until March.
RTM member Ted Hawkins said the RTM would like to see an integrated approach to implementing a leash law while still being able to provide exemptions. Personally, Hawkins said he would like to see a leash law that pertains to public areas, but would still address the issue of when and where people could exercise their dogs.
"This issue has been around and it requires a grassroots effort," Morris said. "Non dog owners would like to see parameters and we want to gather feedback from the community so we can start constructive dialogue."
Some of that feedback can be submitted to the DDOG through their website, dariendog.com, where people can take a survey that asks questions about dogs being off-leash in public spaces.
Morris said so far the group has had the chance to meet with other towns in Fairfield County where off-leash ordinances have been put into place.
Parks and Recreation Director Susan Swiatek said the issue of leashing dogs in all public areas has been discussed for a number of years.
"At Cherry Lawn Park we had an issue with dogs digging up irrigation heads and tearing up the fields that would be used later that day by children," Swiatek said.
Finding a balance between people and animal use is difficult because as Swiatek noted, it's extremely difficult to enforce any rules or regulations in the parks.
"We only have one animal control officer in town," Swiatek said.
The Parks and Recreation Commission is allowed to write its own rules and regulations for the parks but Swiatek said the issue is not just about the parks, but the entire community.
"The community at large needs to deal with the issue and not wait for the Parks and Recreation Commission," Swiatek said. "We need some rules to protect the public."
Swiatek also addressed the fact that many of the statistics that people see don't represent the entire picture.
"A lot of the issues are unreportable," Swiatek said. "We'll get a call that someone had a dog jump on them but there won't be any statistical follow up."
According to Morris, a report of animal bites in 2007 for Darien showed only two reported cases; Greenwich had 63 reported animal bites; New Canaan reported 23 animal bites and Westport had 15 reported bites,
Swiatek said she was glad to see the DDOG coming to the commission to present their ideas.
"If people want something then they should come to us," Swiatek said, "but they need to keep in mind that safety is our number one concern."
In order to address the issue of allowing dogs to run free, Swiatek said many communities around the state have created dog parks. Sarbinowski, who has taken her dog to places that allow dogs to run free and to dog-specific parks, said she doesn't see the need for a dog park when the current parks aren't used at all times of the day.
"It's not something we need when we have parks that are empty at certain times of the day," Sarbinowski said.
Both Sarbinowski and Morris agreed that having certain off-leash hours would be a reasonable compromise.
"It would be fair to have a leash law that allows off-leash hours at dawn and dusk in designated spaces," Sarbinowski said. Morris added that the hours could change on a seasonal basis as well because the parks are less utilized during certain times, such as in the winter.
Animal Control Officer Chip Stahl said one of the challenges he faces is determining if a dog is under the control of its owner under state law.
"A dog has to show it's being out of control by jumping on someone or running into the road," Stahl said. "Simply being away from its owner doesn't mean it's out of control."
Stahl said he would like to see a more proactive approach to the leash law where dogs are required to be leashed while in public areas.
"We have had instances where a friendly dog will run up to an elderly person and knock them down or the person will see the dog running at them and be frightened, but while trying to get away, they fall down," Stahl said.
Stahl suggested an idea similar to Morris and Sarbinowski that there could be hours during the day where dogs could be off-leash.
"The least expensive option for Darien is to pick a park and make that park a dog park," Stahl said. "All the town would need to do is put up signs saying when dogs can be off-leash."
As Swiatek noted, enforcing leash laws can be difficult but Stahl said he wouldn't drive around looking for people to ticket.
"If I saw someone who had a dog off-leash then I would stop and talk to them about it," Stahl said. "I wouldn't ticket them unless they are a repeat offender."
Simply having a leash law on the books would help deter people from letting their dogs run free, Stahl said.
"If people know their dogs have to be on a leash or they'll get a ticket, they'll keep them on a leash," Stahl said.
Sarbinowski said she has found that dogs that are socialized tend to be friendlier, and if allowed to run free, are less aggressive then if they were on a leash. Morris said the DDOG wants to make sure they hear the opinions of neighbors to Cherry Lawn and Woodlawn so they can be cognizant of everyone's needs.