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Basalt Town Council throws dog owners a bone
Changes likely coming to town’s existing leash law
Dogs are an important part of the fabric of Basalt, according to a councilmember and some in the community, during a discussion this week about leash laws. - photo by Craig Turpin

The printed paper signs started to appear taped to Dogipot dog-poop stations all around the Mid-Valley last weekend, and there was no disguising the urgency in their message as they exhorted pet owners to attend Tuesday night’s Basalt Town Council meeting and let dogs have their day.

“Your voice is needed!” the signs implored. “Defend off-leash areas and current lax leash enforcement or ticketing.”

The impetus for the signs, placed by an anonymous source, was that some members of the public had apparently approached the town staff growling about stricter enforcement of the leash law that is supposed to be currently in effect. As written, the law (section 7-139 of Basalt’s municipal code) states that, “It shall be the duty of any owner or keeper of a dog to keep such dog under control, as herein defined, so as to prevent the dog from: (1) Running at large; (2) Becoming a danger to persons or property; (3) Trespassing on the property of another; or (4) Being a public nuisance.”

Though it makes exceptions for dogs working livestock, retrieving wild game for licensed hunters in season or assisting law enforcement officers, the law is otherwise unambiguous. Dogs must be leashed. But there’s just one catch: It’s a law that is almost never enforced, much to the relief of dog owners who like to let their four-legged friends run free.

It seems, though, that such open disregard for an existing statute belly-rubbed some people the wrong way, leading the town council to schedule a first reading of Ord. 14, Series of 2019, which will need to pass if the town is going to be able to amend Chapter 7, Article VII of the town’s dog leash laws. Or, to put it in simpler terms, the council is going to decide whether to designate a few select parks as official off-leash areas while stepping up enforcement of the leash law elsewhere.

Thus, the battle lines were drawn, and the signs went up, hoping to muster a pack of dog lovers to counter the complaints of those seeking to limit off-leash dogs to Arbaney Park in Elk Run, Southside Park in the Southside neighborhood and the western end of Linear Park in Willits.

“These are not an adequate quantity!” the signs warned. “Ask for more: River Park, Willits Rugby Field, Ponderosa Park.”

In the end, however, the dogfight ended up being all bark and no bite. Only a handful of citizens came to the council meeting to share their opinions on the matter, and all of them made the case for keeping the status quo when it came to not enforcing the leash laws.

Before opening the floor to public comments, the council heard first from Basalt Police Chief Greg Knott, who talked about his department’s dogged pursuit of input from citizens all over town in an effort to determine whether free-roaming canines really are a problem.

“People want to have their dogs off leash,” said Knott. “But we did have some conversations with people who are afraid of dogs and seniors who are concerned that they could be knocked down. But this was a good example of community policing, as we tried to get as much input as we could to give us our best opportunity to decide how to go about things.”

The first member of the public to speak was Ben Brennan, a Basalt resident since 2006 who lives at The Villas condo complex in Elk Run. A long time dog owner who says he takes his black Labrador for walks three or more times a day, Brennan made the case that the current system seems to be working fine.

“My overall opinion is that we don’t need to make a change,” he said. “There hasn’t been a failure to police ourselves as dog owners. If someone has a dog that’s aggressive, I feel like we’ve been able to handle it without getting authorities involved. And if there’s going to be designated off-leash areas, there needs to be more than just three.”

Shawn Rios, a resident of the Elk Run neighborhood, felt that there was no need to impose leash restrictions on every dog owner when very few dogs cause issues.

“It doesn’t seem to be problematic,” she said. “I think we can just enforce the law for those owners who have dogs that become aggressive.”

One citizen, Lisa George, did note that off-leash dogs can be a nuisance at Crown Mountain Park when they wander into the kids playground – a problem she claimed happened at “every playground in the valley” – but overall she didn’t feel that dogs needed to be confined to just a few areas.    

After listening to the public comments, councilwoman Jennifer Riffle sided with the pro-dog faction and echoed the sentiments of the Dogipot signs when she agreed that three designated off-leash areas weren’t enough.

“Dogs are part of the fabric of this community,” she said, suggesting that Basalt River Park, Confluence Park by the 7-11 bridge, Ponderosa Park on the Roaring Fork River and the path leading along the Frying Pan River to the Swinging Bridge would all make good off-leash spots, as well.

“These are all areas that are away from roads and schools and have good water access for the dogs,” she said, “and they all already have dog-poop receptacles nearby.”

After hearing the comments, Councilman Auden Schendler moved that the town approve the ordinance, and the motion was approved unanimously by the five council members present and Mayor Jacque Whitsitt, meaning that a second hearing on the proposal to amend the leash law will be scheduled for Aug. 13. 

It’s likely that the ordinance will move without issue through that second hearing, clearing the way for a change to the law, but if Tuesday night’s comments were any indication, the change to the law will be mainly symbolic anyway. 

It seems Basalt has already gone to the (off-leash) dogs, and most people seem to favor letting that treat stay.