The Darien dog leash issue can be boiled down to one question: Should the town place more emphasis on public safety by requiring dogs to be leashed at all times, or should it establish specific off-leash hours at public parks and have faith that dog owners can police themselves?

As many residents and officials pointed out at Wednesday's public hearing, the issue of off-leash dogs in Cherry Lawn, Woodland and Selleck's Woods has been an ongoing debate. In an effort to establish firm rules, the Parks and Recreation Commission drafted a proposal that would establish specific off-leash hours in each of the parks. The proposal would prohibit dogs from being loose near playgrounds or playing fields. In some parks, such Woodland, dogs would be restricted to specific trails.

In a letter addressed to the commission, The Police Commission and Police Chief Duane Lovello expressed concerns with establishing specific off-leash hours. The concern is that it would be nearly impossible for the police to enforce the policy if people refused to obey the rules. Another concern was the stipulation that dogs be kept from playgrounds because the wording was too vague and it was unclear how close a dog could get before it was too close.

Chris Filmer, who has been involved with the Friends of Selleck's Woods for 14 years, expressed concerns with letting dogs off-leash in a nature preserve because of the disruption to natural wildlife.

"There are a lot of dog lovers in this room and I am one of them and naturally we think our dogs are perfect but it's a question of survival," Filmer said. "Unleashed dogs stress wildlife. Dog walkers would be welcome with their dogs on a leash."

Darien Land Trust President Kaye Rabin said opening Selleck's Woods and other nature preserves could potentially jeopardize the mission of the DLT to protect the environment.

"The DLT cannot support this policy because it will create too much confusion," Rabin said. "People who aren't from the area wouldn't be able to differentiate between what areas are OK for off-leash and what areas aren't."

Rabin said there were more appropriate areas in Darien to allow dogs to run free rather than opening the nature preserves.

Darien Dog Owners Group member Pam Zangrillo said the group supported the proposal because it was a compromise for sharing the parks.

She said other towns share their parks and some towns, such as Norwalk, have specific areas in their parks for dogs to run free.

"Darien's safety record speaks for itself. We must be doing something right because we have the fewest number of dog bite incidents," she said. "We're confident we can find a fair and equitable solution."

Zangrillo spoke out against designating Stony Brook and Diller Park as areas where dogs can be off-leash because the areas were too close to Interstate 95 and the terrain was unfavorable for elderly people due to uneven and rough ground.

"Those properties may make for better nature preserves," she said.

Zangrillo asked those in attendance to rise if they were in support of establishing specific off-leash hours in the park. About half of the residents stood in support of the proposal.

Anne Finn, the mother of a child who was attacked by a dog, spoke out against allowing dogs to be off-leash at any time.

"My daughter was severely injured by an unleashed dog. I am here for every person who could face the same scenario," Finn said. "My daughter still has horrible facial scars. A dog leash law should be enacted immediately."

Finn said as long as dogs are allowed to run free, the town is taking away residents' rights to enjoy the parks away from the people.

"Just because there are outspoken people in favor of off-leash that doesn't mean they are right," she said.

Darien resident Chris Bosak also appealed to the commission to require dogs to be leashed at all times while they are in the parks.

"I understand the desire to allow dogs to run free, but it's a detriment to Selleck's Woods and Dunlap," Bosak said. "It would no longer be a nature preserve if dogs disturb the wildlife."

Bosak said he remembered more than a few instances where he was walking in Selleck's Woods and was charged by a dog who wanted to sniff him.

Darien resident Nancy Rawden said the issue has been debated for 25 years and the best way to settle it would be to find a compromise.

"If we can reach a comprise, you can feel safe in the park," Rawden said. "I feel like we have divided into nasty factions."

One argument echoed by supporters of the off-leash hours was the fact that the parks aren't owned by a particular side in the debate.

As a result, it would only be fair to find a compromise where dog owners could let their dogs run free during a time when people who were uncomfortable with unleashed dogs would be less likely to be at the park.

The Parks and Recreation Commission has until June to discuss the issue and vote on the proposal.

How do you feel about allowing dogs to run free in parks? Should all dogs be leashed whenever they are in a park or are there appropriate times and places where dogs can be let of their leashes? Let us know how you feel by writing into the Darien News.

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