By Jaimie Julia Winters
Cary Chevat told the Township Council that for years he’s been doing something illegal. Chevat and a group of dog owners have been meeting up at Edgemont Memorial Park late at night, he said, to do something illicit: letting their dogs off the leash to socialize as a pack.
“We’ve been meeting for years,” Chevat told the council last Tuesday, Oct. 12. “There’s been no problems.”
But now, he and his fellow dog owners want to be on the up-and-up.
Montclair has a leash law for dogs for all public places, with violations punishable up to 90 days in jail and or $2,000 in fines.
The law reads: “No person owning or having the control, custody or possession of a dog shall permit or suffer such dog to run at large or to go or be upon the public streets, sidewalks or other public places within the Township unless said dog shall be on a leash and in the custody of some person or persons capable of controlling such dog.”
Chevat and his fellow off-leash advocates — they call their group “Montclair PUPs (Park Users and Pets)” — are proposing that designated areas in some town parks, during designated hours, be open to dog owners and their unleashed pups to meet, exercise and socialize.
“We are requesting that the town council and Parks and Recreation Committee work to develop a set of rules defining recommended hours and places where Dog owners may safely allow their pets to exercise without displacing other residents’ use of the parks,” he said.
The group proposed a pilot program of six months designating a portion of Edgemont Park for off-leash activities twice a day, from 6 to 9 a.m. and 8 to 10 p.m.
Montclair PUPs would foster a sense of community among like-minded folks with their “Yappy Hours” in the park.
“We share information on dog health, social behavior and such,” Chevat said.
They would also push for all dogs to be registered with the town, which would promote dog health and resident safety, as registered dogs need to be up-to-date on their shots. Currently there are about 1,200 dogs registered, Chevat said, adding that he believes there are more dogs living in town that are unregistered.
Cities like New York began allowing dogs off-leash in certain parks in the evenings where no dog parks existed about 20 years ago, said resident and dog owner Leland Montgomery, adding that the city attributes lower-crime rates in the parks partly to the increased after-hours pedestrian presence in the parks.
“It has worked swimmingly in the largest city,” Montgomery said. “It can work well here.”
But concerned members of the Parks and Recreation Committee attended the council meeting after seeing the “proposal” listed on the agenda.
Member William Scott said the committee was unaware of any such proposal. He added that the committee should have the opportunity to weigh in on the plans and then report back to the council either in support or against, he said.
“We need to look at the current ordinace, how it could be changed and the liability. We want to make sure that a quality of life is maintained for all park users,” he said.
The Parks and Recreation Committee will be making recommendations to the council on the proposal.
Even for a pilot program, the current leash law would have to be changed. Under New Jersey state law, dog owners would be held to any liability.
Second Ward Councilwoman Robin Schlagler, whose ward includes Edgemont Park, suggested an enclosed area using temporary fencing that could be taken up and down.
“Dogs are social animals and do well in packs. Studies show that dogs are more sociable calmer in the pack, and they stick together,” said Montgomery.
The group said that there would be six simple rules to follow:
• Owners must take responsibility for your dog’s actions, and only responsible dog ownership will ensure continued off-leash time;
• Off-leash hours must strictly be followed;
• Owners must remain with or near their dog when off-leash;
• Don’t allow a dog off-leash unless they have been trained to come when called;
• Clean up after your dog and gently let someone know if their dog pooped and they did not see it; and
- Dogs are not permitted in playgrounds or in-use playing fields.