Magazine article Parks & Recreation

'Courtesy Hours' for Off-Leash Dogs in Public Parks

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

'Courtesy Hours' for Off-Leash Dogs in Public Parks

Article excerpt

Increasingly, dog owner groups and individual citizens are encouraging their city and county park departments to implement unfenced, off-leash areas in local parks. Due to existing ordinances, regulations and statutes (so-called "Leash Laws"), and perhaps the perceived threat and fear of governmental liability, many public park agencies have maintained a blanket prohibition against off-leash dogs in public parks, outside of fenced areas.

Questions of liability and safety may understandably arise when considering the feasibility of implementing a park policy that would allow dogs off-leash in parks under certain conditions as a more "dog friendly" alternative to fenced-in, designated dog run areas.

As illustrated by the "Juniper Park" court opinion described below, one such alternative was to perpetuate a tradition of informal "courtesy hours" for off-leash dogs in parks. This unwritten park policy, however, generated 20 years of complaints, controversy and, ultimately, litigation by community opponents of this practice, demanding enforcement of existing "Leash Laws."

Whether or not to create an off-leash policy for dogs is generally left to the judgment and discretion of local officials, who are authorized and charged with the responsibility to manage public parks. Accordingly, courts will not second-guess or question administrative decisions made by agencies and officials exercising their judgment and discretion to manage public parks in a manner consistent with the scope of their legal authority under state or local law.

Such immune administrative discretion would generally include decisions regarding where and when dogs could be off-leash in public parks, if at all. As a result, resolution of potential off-leash controversies and conflicts between dog owners and other park users is a public relations/political issue better left to the judgment and discretion of local government officials, not a legal issue for courts to decide.

Liability is also a non-issue. On the issue of potential liability, applicable state law would likely provide public park agencies with policy/planning immunity on the decision whether to restrict dogs in the parks, including the operational details of implementing an applicable leash law and/or off-leash policy. Moreover, the alleged failure to effectively enforce existing leash laws or an off-leash policy would generally be immune from governmental liability under general police protection/prosecutorial discretion immunity.

Further, on the issue of potential liability for injuries to park users associated with leashed or unleashed dogs in public parks, in most situations, the role of a park agency would be limited to that of landowner. Accordingly, the mere presence of leashed and unleashed dogs in parks would not constitute an "unreasonably dangerous condition on the premises" necessary to provide a legal basis for landowner liability. On the contrary, the legal responsibility, if any, would lie with the dog owner, not the public park agency, for any injuries associated with leashed or unleashed dogs in public parks.

Off-Leash Political Controversy

In the Matter of Juniper Park Civic Assn. Inc. v. City of New York, 831 N.Y.S.2d 360 (11/30/2006), a nonprofit civic association, the Juniper Park Civic Association (JPCA), sought a court order to compel the city of New York (NYC) to enforce provisions of the New York City Health Code and the Rules of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, both of which required dogs in parks to be leashed. Formed in 1942, JPCA is "dedicated to preserving the quality of life in and around Middle Village, Elmhurst and Maspeth, Queens County." The name of the organization is derived from a New York City park, Juniper Valley Park, located in Middle Village, Queens.

NYC, through the Department of Parks and Recreation (Parks Department), was responsible for "maintaining, policing and administering" NYC parks, including Juniper Valley Park. …

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