If you have an opinion on the Parks and Recreation Commission's proposed dog leash laws, chances are someone voiced it Wednesday night at .
Over 40 people — from elected officials to organizational heads to concerned residents — stepped up to the lectern at a two-and-a-half-hour public hearing, which put in sharp relief the debate over safety and personal freedom surrounding the plan.
The proposed leash ordinance, which would require approval by Darien's Representative Town Meeting, has been tweaked, discussed, and . Wednesday's hearing concerned the provisions of the would-be law affecting the town's parks.
Currently, dogs must be kept on leash in and and are banned from , , and playing fields at .
The commission's latest draft would require dogs to be on leash at most of the town's parks while carving out morning off-leash hours according to the following schedule:
- Cherry Lawn Park, peak season (March 1-Dec. 15): Off-leash hours would run from dawn to 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday and dawn to 8 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Leashes would be required in parking lots, around playgrounds, and around playing fields, and dogs would continue to be banned from the playing fields themselves.
- Cherry Lawn Park, off-peak season (Dec. 16-Feb. 28): Off-leash hours would run from dawn to 11:30 a.m. seven days a week with the same restrictions.
- Woodland Park and Selleck's Woods: Dogs would be allowed off leash on select trails from dawn to 10:30 a.m. seven days a week. Signage would be placed throughout the parks designating rules and leash instruction on specific trails.
- , Diller Property: Dogs would be allowed off leash, dawn to dusk, seven days a week.
- , : Dogs would be required to be on leash at all times.
- Weed Beach, Pear Tree Point Beach: Dogs would continue to be banned except for service animals.
In a letter read aloud Wednesday by Parks & Rec chair Jane Branigan, Darien Chief of Police Duane Lovello warned that an ordinance that varies based on season, time of day, or locations within the parks would be "impossible to objectively enforce."
"This latest draft appears to incorporate to some degree nearly all the elements the police department has cautioned against," Lovello wrote.
Chris Filmer, president of the Friends of Selleck's Woods, told the commission that allowing dogs off-leash in the park would harm its status as a nature preserve, as "unleashed dogs are viewed by wildlife as predators"
"This off-leashing proposal is so contrary to our mission and everything we have done," Filmer said, adding that unleashed dogs also pose a threat to children who visit the woods.
Anne Finn, whose daughter was badly injured by a unleashed dog in Cherry Lawn Park, called for the commission to require leashes at all times in all parks, calling it a "no-brainer."
"By allowing dogs off-leash in our town parks, you are taking away the rights of the people ... and giving rights to the dogs first. It should be the other way around," Finn said.
"If this commission did nothing, there is currently a problem: my property is completely overrun by dogs off-leash now." said Frank Cirillo, whose house borders Woodland Park.
Cirillo said that both of his children had been "jumped" by dogs on his property and that the flow of dogs past his house had left droppings in his yard.
"If you do the math and take 150 dogs a day in the park, off the leash, doing their business, that's 109,500 dog droppings in a year. ... If you allow dogs off the leash, will an owner walk into a wooded area and pick up after their dog? No," Cirillo said.
But Pam Zangrillo, a member of the Darien Dog Owners Group (DDOG), cited the examples of Fairfield, Norwalk, and Greenwich to argue that compromise is possible between owners wanting to exercise their dogs off-leash and those concerned about park safety and nature.
"In the end, our parks are public parks, owned not by one group, but by all 20,000 residents and taxpayers of Darien," Zangrillo said. "Walking with my dog in the park is one of the most joyful parts of my day."
Zangrillo also relayed several of DDOG's recommended changes to the ordinance, including that late afternoon/evening off-leash hours be added to accommodate commuters.
Resident James Cerruti criticized the commission's response to residents seeking off-leash hours and said that "anything bad seems to be blamed on the dogs" rather than other animals that chase birds.
"Have we gone so far off the reservation that migratory birds have more rights than the taxpaying citizens of Darien to usage of our parklands?" Cerutti asked.
Ed Hawkins, a resident of Mansfield Avenue, said he and wife take their dog to Tilley Pond Park to exercise by playing catch with a frisbee.
"This is a very valuable part of her day," Hawkins said.
"I think it would be a real impingement ... if we simply put down blanket restrictions that it's inappropriate for dogs to be off leash in any park at any time in Darien," he added.
Several speakers invoked the possibility of building a dedicated dog park as an alternative to off-leash hours — a proposal that has so far failed to receive town funding.
"In my opinion, a dog park is a win-win for all of Darien," said Cheryl Russell. "A dog park would have no time restrictions. It would be open 365 days a year. No one would receive a ticket for a dog off-leash."
The Parks and Recreation Commission's next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, June 15.