The town of Essex is revising its dog ordinance to crack down on a rash of complaints and biting incidents. And while a draft of the new regulations would give the selectboard more authority over such matters, members last week signaled a willingness to go further, setting its sights on the beloved Indian Brook Park.

Indian Brook is one of only three areas in town where dogs can legally run off-leash in public, the other being the Saxon Hill Forest and the Essex Dog Park. The freedom to roam makes the recreational area a popular destination for dogs and their owners.

It’s also made policing the area much harder, according to Chief Rick Garey, who shared a draft of changes to the ordinance during the July 23 joint meeting.

The proposal kept its paws off the leash laws in town. But in response to comments from the board, the chief made his stance on the park clear.

“You want my opinion? Indian Brook should be leash-only,” he said.

Though owners must currently keep their dogs on “voice command” at areas exempt from the leash law, both Garey and some elected officials said they’ve experienced many instances where this was not the case.

“You cannot have [voice] control; dogs are dogs, okay? And they’re going to act out,” Garey said. “We deal with a ton of bites and complaints at Indian Brook.” Often, owners will refuse to give their names or head further into the woods, the chief added, forcing officers to spend hours trying to track them down.

The only way to ensure a dog remains under an owners control? Put it on a leash, Garey said.  “Because on command … you can’t guarantee it,” he said.

One board member appeared ready to sign off of the move. Selectmen Patrick Murray recalled run-ins with off-leash dogs at Indian Brook and said he no longer brings his dog there.

“If it’s happened enough times that I don’t go to Indian Brook anymore … I feel like I’m comfortable making the decision now,” said selectmen Patrick Murray.

Chairwoman Elaine Haney resisted signing off on the change, however, saying the board needs to first hear more public feedback. That stance was echoed by trustee Raj Chawla, who reminded his colleagues that there’s plenty of responsible dog owners.

“There’s going to be just as many people upset that we’re removing something they enjoy at Indian Brook,” Chawla said, calling the park one of the town’s “few resources.”

Those watching last week’s meeting would have left assuming tougher regulations were a majority opinion in town. Gail Cummings asked the board to help responsible owners feel safer walking their dogs. Mary Post voiced support for leashing dogs at Indian Brook. And Bruce Griffin challenge members to back up their talk with action.

“All I want is a safe place to walk,” Griffin said. “I don’t feel I have that right now on a public street and a public park that I pay for with my taxes.”

But discussions among residents on social media show others believe Indian Brook is being unfairly targeted, suggesting the board will need to navigate a wide range of opinions when they take up the matter again.

Garey plans to return with a new draft later this month, and despite a request from municipal manager Evan Teich that they give the chief guidance on what they’d like to see for Indian Brook, members deferred judgment for now.

Garey did leave the meeting with some guidance, specifically on a new section of the ordinance that would give the selectboard more authority over so-called “potentially vicious dogs.”

Currently, the town can only host hearings for dogs that bite humans, and only when the bite occurs off its owners property, breaks the skin and requires medical attention.

The new section would have let residents file a complaint with the selectboard if a dog damages personal property, chases a human or causes a person to “reasonably fear attack or bodily injury.” It would also take complaints against dogs that chase in a “menacing manner,” threaten or attack another pet.

The changes would make it far easier for dog issues to rise to the selectboard’s attention, which was Garey’s main intention. But some worried the new regulations set the bar too low.

“There are individuals who I’ve seen that walk around in Essex or who go to the dog park that get very protective about dogs and will absolutely use that as an excuse to bring it up in front of a full board,” Murray said. “Is the broadness of ‘potentially vicious dog’ too broad in this instance?”

“It does seem that this is really open to a lot of interpretation,” he added.

Other board members agreed. Haney said the definition feels subjective, especially when considering that what an elderly person or someone with young children finds threatening may differ from the rest of the population.

Garey responded that’s the purpose of the hearings: To take testimony from those involved and make a decision about whether the dog is vicious. “If you want us to do it, then it becomes subjective,” he said.

“We just need a solution we can enforce consistently both in the village and the town that’s going to solve some of this for us,” he added.

 

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Raj Chawla’s elected position. He serves on the board of trustees, not the selectboard. We regret the error.