Council mulls allowing pets in city parks

Dubuque parks commission votes in favor after lots of public comment on the issue, pro and con.

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Posted: Sunday, March 3, 2013 12:00 am

On Monday the Dubuque City Council will consider approval of an ordinance amendment to allow leashed dogs and cats in city parks. Leashes must be no longer than 6 feet.

A petition seeking the change received 1,101 signatures, while a petition of those opposed received 1,057. Of letters and emails sent to the Parks & Recreation Commission, 47 were against the change and 10 supported it.

Mayor Pro Tem Kevin Lynch will run Monday's meeting in Mayor Roy Buol's absence. Lynch said he does not plan to allow public comment on the issue unless other council members would prefer to open the floor to public debate.

Lynch's decision is largely based on the months of research and debate already conducted by the commission. The commission voted, 6-1, to recommend the council allow pets in parks and on trails except for Eagle Point Park, Marshall Park and Arboretum, Bunker Hill Golf Course, Sutton and Flora pools and inside the fence of the McAleece Park and Recreation Complex.

"There are two very passionate sides out there," said Bob Blocker, who chairs the commission.

A survey of other large Iowa cities found Dubuque is the only one that does not permit leashed dogs in its parks. The current ordinance was written in 1969, and no one has been able to track down the origin of the ban.

"Over the years, there have been a lot of requests to review this," Blocker said. "One of the points I hammered home was that Dubuque seems to be an outsider in all of this. I think going from not being allowed at all to most parks being OK is a good step forward."

James Kress has been a leading voice in opposition. He said Dubuque is an All-American City and should lead the way, not follow the lead of other communities. Kress led the petition drive by walking the parks and talking to park users face-to-face. He said he talked to more than 1,000 people and at least 90 percent opposed the change. First and foremost, Kress argues, the issue is about children's safety.

"The sliding boards, teeter-totters and merry-go-rounds have all been removed because of safety issues," Kress said. "The swings are still there but the wooden seats have been replaced with a softer one to prevent injury. The wading pool (at Eagle Point) no longer has water in it because of health issues. Allowing dogs in the parks would be going against everything we have already done to make it safer for children."

Robin MacFarlane, owner of That's My Dog, said she has worked on this issue for about a year and found many people who didn't know pets weren't allowed and already take their dogs for park outings.

"Change is hard and this is something different, but I don't think it will cause any major upheaval for our city," MacFarlane said. "I think it's for the best as we continue to draw out-of-towners to our community. It is the norm in most communities, and we need to get on board with that."

MacFarlane said she would be glad to spearhead a public education campaign about the importance of cleaning up after pets and other safety measures. She also hopes the council will reverse the commission's stance on Eagle Point Park.

"I see that as a critical park to allow it," McFarlane said. "People do just come to visit and make the drive through there, and I think it is very valuable to allow the dogs there."

Kress said the litter left behind by pet owners is a secondary issue, but he bristles when he hears people compare dogs in parks to poorly supervised children littering.

"If a child litters, you pick it up and throw it the garbage, it's done," Kress said. "If a child gets bitten by a dog, that child can be scarred physically and emotionally for life."

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