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Williamstown Looking to Designate Leashed, Unleashed Dog Areas at Spruces
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:23AM / Friday, February 16, 2024
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday discussed finding a way to designate areas in the Spruces Park where dogs can and cannot be kept off leash.
The discussion was a continuation of last year's annual town meeting, where the meeting voted to take no action on a proposal to change the town's bylaw allowing dogs to be off leash or "under voice command" in the General Residence District.
Subsequent to the meeting, town officials realized there is a bylaw on the books that the Select Board, acting in its capacity as the town's Parks Commission, enacted in 1977 and amended 1998 that requires animals to be leashed in town parks.
That provision in the town code, Section 103-1, appears to be at odds with Chapter 10, Article 2, adopted by the annual town meeting in 2000, that requires people responsible for dogs to "restrain their dogs physically by leash or by voice control when they are not on the owner's property."
A proposal placed on the 2023 annual town meeting warrant would have removed the voice control option in the GR District, an area of town that includes the former mobile home park that now is a town park.
Town Manager Robert Menicocci noted that signage at the park specifically references the fact that voice control is an acceptable option and recommended that the town needs to clarify the rules — either by changing the signs to reflect the rules set forth in Chapter 103 (i.e. dogs must be leashed) or by explicitly allowing off leash dogs in the Spruces Park by acting under Chapter 103-3, which specifies, "The Park Commissioners reserve the right to waive and/or limit these rules at any time."
Menicocci also offered a middle path: The Select Board, i.e. Parks Commission, could waive the rule requiring leashes "only for designated areas" within the Spruces Park.
That was the course of action favored by members of the board who spoke after taking lengthy testimony from residents both for and against the idea of tightening the leash law.
Most of the residents who spoke at Monday's meeting indicated a preference for allowing owners to have their dogs off leash in the park. But Menicocci reported that in his admittedly unscientific efforts to gauge public opinion, there were plenty of advocates on both sides.
"My observation walking around the Spruces part of the [Mohican Trail] is roughly 70 to 75 percent of the folks I encountered were with a dog," Menicocci said. "Of that group it was about a 50/50 split — again, not scientific — some on a leash and some not on a leash. That just establishes that there is high utilization in the Spruces of folks who want to have their dogs there. In reaching out to folks informally in conversation, I had positive feedback that folks are largely happy with what's going on there in current use.
"In addition, folks reached out to me directly — when we asked for public comment in the past. Of the folks who reached out specifically, I'd say there's an 80/20 split — 80 percent expressing a concern about some encounter they had at the Spruces with an animal who was largely off leash, though in some cases a dog was on leash but still acted aggressively."
Select Board member Randal Fippinger later noted that residents who are afraid of close encounters with unleashed dogs may not be using the Spruces Park in the first place.
Several members of the board argued that both owners of dogs who want to keep them off leash and residents who are fearful around unleashed dogs could be accommodated in the 114-acre park.
"What I'm asking people to do … is an exercise called, 'walking in my shoes,'" said Chair Jeffrey Johnson, who participated in the meeting remotely due to illness. "I'm hearing fear on both sides. I think the solution is easy. How we get there is hard. We need to figure out a way that everyone can do everything down there."
Vice Chair Jane Patton, who handled the duties of running Monday's lengthy and at times emotionally charged meeting, concurred.
"We're not talking about leash or no leash at the Spruces," she said in wrapping up the discussion. "We're talking about a way in this 114 acres to find space for everybody."
Not discussed at Monday's meeting was how areas of the park with different rules could be separated given the oft-expressed difficulty the town has had adding any infrastructure to the park, which is regulated by the Federal Emergency Management Administration as a flood plain under the terms of a Hazard Mitigation Grant the town used to acquire the property.
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