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Tensions unleashed in park

Buffalo News,   October 15, 2009  by Sandra Tan

         Amherst State Park has gone to the dogs, and not everyone is happy about it.

       The Williamsville park features an expansive old apple orchard and a bridge that spans Ellicott Creek over into a grassy field. Buffered from busy streets and free of sports fields or other active-use park features, the natural setting is an ideal canine playground.

       But other park patrons are feeling hounded. They point to the very obvious red-and-white signs at the entrance to the park requiring dogs to be kept on a 6-foot leash at all times.

       "It's like if you had signs that said 'No hunting' and you go in there and people are hunting, and you think, 'Gee, I didn't think I'd get shot at,' " said Williamsville resident Gary Borek.

       Many see an official off-leash park in Amherst, similar to the extremely successful one in Buffalo's LaSalle Park, as a solution. But those efforts have made slow progress.

       In the meantime, some believe sanctioned but restricted off-leash times at the state park might ensure better compliance with leash laws the rest of the time. Strict state park regulations currently do not permit such flexibility, however. 

      "My opinion of the current situation -- of total prohibition and no enforcement -- is the worst you can have," said Borek, who hopes to meet with the town's Parks and Playgrounds Committee. "Nobody is going to be happy with that situation."

       This conflict between off-leash dog proponents and other park patrons is not new. For more than a decade, residents say, the park has been an informal meeting place for dog owners who want to give their energetic companions some romping room after work or on the weekends during good weather days.

       Shortly after the property -- once owned by the St. Mary's of the Angels Motherhouse -- became a state park in 2003 and the leash laws went into effect, however, the complaints began.

       They remain emblematic of the ongoing tensions between those who believe man's best friend deserves some off-leash freedom and those who believe the comfort and security of human patrons, and leashed pets, should come first. Dave Miller, who has lived by the park for 30 years and owns a greyhound, said dog owners represent the majority of patrons in Amherst State Park. Most of them are extremely considerate, he said, and many help with organized park cleanup efforts.

       "I always push for responsible dog ownership," he said. "If you own a dog, you shouldn't let your dog run up to anyone, on a leash or not. It really is a small faction on either side that are causing problems for everyone."

       Pete Warn, a member of the town's Parks and Playgrounds Committee, said the reason dog owners make up the majority of park patrons is because anyone who is uncomfortable with dogs knows to stay away.

       "My wife used to love to walk down there," he said. "She won't go down there anymore because of the dogs."

       Borek, who regularly walks with his own 100-pound mixed-breed dog on a leash in the park, said he wouldn't be so annoyed if people would leash their dogs when asked.

       But a few months ago, he ran into some hotheads. One physically threatened him when he told some of the owners to restrain their animals. Even after getting ticketed by the town's animal control officer, the man told Borek, "I'll be back with my dogs every night," followed by an expletive.

       Another told him, "Don't be surprised to find dog [poop] all over your car someday." The run-in prompted him to unleash his criticism in an angry letter to the Amherst Town Board, recommending higher fines and tougher enforcement. He has since softened his stance considerably, asking now that the town simply revise its laws so there are sanctioned times for off-leashed dogs to roam, and other times when other park patrons or patrons with leashed animals can enjoy the park in peace.

       Dave Goddard, a dog owner who was actually cited by an animal control officer after Borek asked for tougher leash-law enforcement at the park, said he approached Borek to see if there was any way for the two sides to find common ground. "Much to my surprise, Gary was very workable."

       But whether a compromise measure is truly feasible is another matter entirely. Council Member Mark Manna said he would support a compromise law that would limit the times park users can let their dogs off leash so that at other times, patrons with leashed dogs or without pets can enjoy the park without worrying about being bothered.

       Angela Berti, regional spokeswoman for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said state laws require dogs be kept on a 6-foot leash at all times. Amherst State Park is an unusual case, however, since the town is responsible for all park maintenance and enforcement of park laws.

       In this situation, the state might look at the feasibility of creating a "carve out" provision for the park. But no such request has been made, she said. "It's hard to speculate whether we would be open to it or not."

       Manna said many dog owners are obviously in a tough spot. But he also said at a recent Town Board meeting that the current situation is unacceptable. "I stopped taking my dog because she's constantly being attacked by off-leash dogs," he said at the meeting. "And I hear more complaints about Amherst State Park in violation of the leash laws there than any park anywhere in the town."

       Manna has a 2-year-old, 20-pound mixed-breed named Penny whom he has walked with his daughter in the park a few times over the past year. He said larger, off-leash dogs would charge at Penny and ruin the experience.

       "She's friendly, but yelps and cowers; she tries to lay down and hide," Manna said. "There are dogs of every imaginable size and shape that are off-leash. Most of the dogs that are off-leash, their owners are considerate." But it only takes a few bad apples to ruin the experience for everyone, he said, recalling that one time, an off-leash dog owner sarcastically told Manna to call the cops if he didn't like the situation.

       Amherst police did, in fact, conduct an enforcement sweep weeks ago that resulted in five people getting ticketed, said Capt. Patrick McKenna. But during the animal control officer's last few visits, no one was spotted with unleashed dogs.

      “Maybe people are learning," he said.

       Park patrons, however, say dog owners are simply running their dogs in the grassy back field of the park where they are less likely to approach other patrons or be easily spotted by enforcement officers.

       Warn and Manna have both been working with the Amherst Paw Park Association to get a dedicated dog park established on Smith Road, near the Amherst Compost Facility. But that effort, approved in late 2007 after several false starts, has met a number of unanticipated setbacks.

       "That would be the common sense solution for this," Manna said.

       The group is finalizing some insurance requirements and working with The Barkyard group that runs the off-leash dog area at LaSalle Park, Warn said. The group eventually hopes to restart fundraising efforts after getting a green light from the town to proceed.

 Charles Lewis/Buffalo News

     Gary Borek, with his dog, Mesa, on a leash in Amherst State Park, stands by a one of the park's signs requiring all dogs to be leashed, while an unleashed dog stands behind him.

     Charles Lewis/Buffalo News

     Patty Morris, left, with her dog, Lily, shares dog stories with Dave Goddard and his dog, Jazz, in Amherst State Park.

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