Dog owners barking over enforcement of leash law |

Dog owners barking over enforcement of leash law

EL JEBEL ” People who have walked their dogs for years in a popular midvalley park and open space area find themselves scofflaws because of an abrupt change in Eagle County’s enforcement of the leash law there.

Eagle County Animal Services recently started warning people who walk dogs without a leash at Crown Mountain Park in El Jebel and adjacent in open space that they will face a $40 fine for future offenses.

“We were getting multiple complaints regarding dogs off leash, and although I believe that the sheriff’s office asked us to help out, I have not confirmed that,” said Natalie Duck, animal services director for Eagle County. “Really, the bottom line is that there are posted signs saying that dogs need to be on leash, and that is what we are enforcing.”

Dog owners who frequently walk their dogs in that area said they understand the need for the leash law in the heavily used portion of Crown Mountain Park. However, they are perplexed by Eagle County’s enforcement of the rule in the adjacent open space to the south.

“I’ve been walking dogs there for 23 years,” said Fred Brooks of Sopris Village. “It’s been the one place you could walk your dogs and not put them on a leash.”

He said is “infuriates” him that the rules are suddenly changing. “I don’t see the problem,” he said.

Crown Mountain Park was developed earlier this decade on a portion of the old Mount Sopris Tree Nursery. The park features a heavy mix of people using a paved trail, ballfields and a popular playground.

Part of the old tree nursery remains an open, grassy field with a dirt path along its perimeter. That path is as popular for midvalley dog owners as Smuggler Mountain is for Aspen dog owners. The meadow, south of the developed park, is Eagle County open space.

Brooks suggested that the active part of the park could be separated from the meadow if Eagle County officials are concerned about a problem.

Duck said a dog park exists in Crown Mountain Park where dog owners can let their pets off leash within a fenced enclosure. It appears to be about the size of a tennis court.

“That’s not a dog park. That’s a dog pen,” Brooks said.

Sopris Village resident Kim Shultz has walked her dogs in the area that became Crown Mountain Park and the adjacent field nearly every day for 20 years. She said she’s never received any complaints about her pets and often doesn’t encounter anyone. She is sympathetic to enforcement of the leash law in the park. “I can see the logic of that,” she said.

But like Brooks, she believes dog walkers should be left alone when they are in the field because she doesn’t believe there is a problem. Word of the increased enforcement by Eagle County is just starting to circulate among dog walkers, she said.

“I think people are going to be pretty upset,” Shultz said.

The potential for problems in the developed park are apparent. On any given day, regardless of season, there is dog waste on the ballfields, soccer fields and along a 1-mile paved loop trail. A mother who frequently takes her toddler to the playground at Crown Mountain said that she always has to be on the lookout for dog waste.

In addition, there are always activities going on in the summer ” from people jogging the paved route to competitive games ” that dogs off leash can disrupt.

Ross Stepp, executive director of Crown Mountain Park, said the recreation district didn’t request the increased enforcement, but it agrees and supports Eagle County’s position on the leash law. Dog waste has been a problem at the park since Crown Mountain opened despite the placement of dog waste bags and trash cans all along the trail and in the park.

“Sadly, but as usual, it is the small minority of people who disregard others that create the necessity for these laws in the first place,” Stepp said.

The recreation district didn’t advocate for enforcement of the leash law in the open space south of the park because that land is outside the park boundaries. “I was surprised that Eagle County would enforce the leash law in the passive open space,” Stepp said.

Mike Mercatoris, a Sopris Village homeowner, looked at the issue as both the parent of two young kids who use the park and the owner of a dog that uses the open space adjacent to the park.

“I don’t think it is unreasonable to enforce a leash law in the active part of the park,” Mercatoris said. “We are guilty of not keeping our dog on the leash at the park and have been asked by other parents to put the dog in the car while we are at the playground. We don’t have a problem with that.”

His family has lived along the open meadow for eight years and has felt “very lucky” to have it for their dog. He opposes the leash law there. “It is one of the few flat open areas in the valley where a dog can be a dog and run free willy,” Mercatoris said.

He said the rules should be clear cut: “For me it is pretty simple: If you are on the paved path, leash. If you are on the dirt, chase the ball and have fun.”

ASPEN ” The Aspen area has experienced a spurt this winter in the number of human confrontations spurred by people having dogs off leashes, so Pitkin County Trails and Open Space is getting more aggressive about writing tickets.

John Armstrong, the ranger for the open space program, said police have been called three times in the past two weeks because of confrontations between dog owners. All three incidents occurred on the Rio Grande Trail, which is the jurisdiction of the open space program.

The latest incident occurred Monday at 11:30 a.m., when a large dog approached a puppy in a way that the puppy’s owner felt was aggressive. The puppy’s owner kicked the larger dog “violently,” Armstrong said. The confrontation took place on the trail just down from the Aspen post office. Police and Armstrong responded.

Armstrong ticketed the owner of the larger dog for not using a leash. The dog was put on a leash as they approached the puppy, Armstrong said, but that’s not good enough. They must be leashed at all times on the Rio Grande Trail, he said.

Aspen police also are investigating the incident but no decision has been made on a charge, officer Ian MacAyeal said. The same dog owners had a confrontation, apparently with their dogs off leash, on the Rio Grande Trail two weeks ago. There has been some Hatfields-versus-McCoy type of animosity between them, MacAyeal said.

Armstrong said police also were called recently to a confrontation between two other dog owners between the post office and Stein Park.

While officers were investigating the confrontation Monday, two other dog owners with three pets walked by them without using leashes. “Frankly open space [staff] is disappointed in the behavior” of some dog owners, Armstrong said. The leash law is widely ignored.

“It’s the biggest problem parks and open spaces programs have across the United States,” Armstrong said. “It requires a constant vigil.”

That means tickets. The fine for not having a dog on leash on Pitkin County Trails and Open Space lands is $100 for the first offense, $500 for the second offense and $1,000 for the third offense.

“It shows people we’re serious about it,” Armstrong said. He stresses education, which often results in a warning the first time.

Dog owners who want to walk their pets off leash have plenty of options. Those include many areas of national forest outside of designated wilderness. In the Aspen area, dogs can be walked off leash during the winter at Difficult Campground, up Independence Pass on Highway 82 and up Maroon Creek Road, according to Armstrong. Dogs can also be walked on a portion of the city-owned Marolt open space, and there is one special dog-friendly trail each at the cross-country ski centers at the Aspen and Snowmass golf courses.

The policy on Smuggler Mountain Road is under debate.

– Scott Condon

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