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To Leash Or Not To Leash: Basalt Ordinance Sparks Concern For Some Dog Owners

Nov 10, 2019

Dogs play in the off-leash area at Arbaney Park in Basalt.
Credit Molly Dove / Aspen Public Radio

Some dogs are leashed, some run free. Some enjoy playing with other dogs, some would rather keep to themselves. Some are friendly and enjoy a stranger petting them, others don’t. 

All dogs are different, and Basalt residents are, too. Some support a new Basalt ordinance regarding leash laws, and others, not as much. 

It’s a snowy early November day at Arbaney Park. About five dogs run around the open grass area between the playground and the pavilion. Their owners stand in a circle and catch up. They see each other when they all walk to the park to let their dogs run around.

Usually when they would walk to the park, they let their dogs walk beside them, not on a leash. But now, that’s not the case. 

Ordinance 20, which Basalt's town council passed at the end of September, designates five different areas around town where dog owners can let their dogs off-leash: Linear Park, Confluence Park, Southside Park, Arbaney Park and Lions Park. In any other places, like sidewalks, playgrounds or other open space areas, the dogs must be on a leash. If not, the owner will be cited.

“My dog was never on a leash; they’re always on a leash when I come and go now,” a dog owner in the group at Arbaney Park said. “I mean, I keep them on a leash until I get here, but they love and go and bark at the dog in a house over here. But sometimes if I don’t catch them soon enough, they’ll run over there, but I’ll leash them as soon as I can catch them.”

Under Ordinance 20, if that owner’s dogs ran over to that house and went outside of the off-leash area and a police officer was around to see it, the owner could technically be cited. The area is not fenced in. It is designated by a couple of paper signs in orange construction cones.

That’s one big problem Leigh Letson, a Basalt dog owner, has with the new ordinance. How is the town going to enforce it? 

“It’s a wasted effort, frankly. Everyone’s like why bother? I mean, it’s like a solution looking for a problem,” Letson said. “You know, because there just is no problem here.”

A dog owner grabs her dog to go home after playing with the other dogs at the off-leash area in Arbaney Park.
Credit Molly Dove / Aspen Public Radio

But the Basalt Police Department received 27 calls for dog bites between 2016 and 2019. Of those, 21 were dogs off-leash and seven on-leash. 

Basalt town manager Ryan Mahoney said that is one big reason why the town council wanted to pass this ordinance. 

“I wouldn’t take it to the level that it was an epidemic, but we felt strongly enough about it that kind of getting ahead of it, while we still have a reasonable method to solve for these issues, was a nice solution,” Mahoney said. 

That solution is designating specific off-leash areas and easing into enforcing it. Mahoney said probably until the new year, police will just educate people not following the rules, but, eventually, there will be consequences. 

“As with anything, our police use their own discretion. Nothing is black and white, and so it would just depend on what they saw,” Mahoney said. 

He noted, if a dog is running around the playground area and acting aggressively with kids, then the owner will be cited. But if the dog is just chasing a ball that was thrown out of the off-leash area and is coming right back, then the owner will be off the hook.

Sitting in the pavilion overlooking the off-leash area at Arbaney Park, Basalt resident Bennett Bramson said Basalt dog owners should realize that this ordinance is actually a win for them and their dogs.

“Right now, the fact that people have an area this size that they can throw the ball with their dog and be around other dogs, I don’t think people have realized yet that we have opened up sizable areas for their dogs to be off leash,” he said. 

But Bramson said this ordinance is not for the responsible dog owners. It’s for those Basalt dog owners that have aggressive dogs and don’t take the right steps to keep everyone safe, which can ruin the fun of off-leash areas.

“So I’m hoping people will just act responsibly, as both human beings who can read signs because dogs can’t, or people who will say, ‘I’m a responsible dog owner, and I want to do the right thing,’” Bramson said. “I never blame the dogs, I blame the humans.”

A dog and his owner walk along the Frying Pan River in Downtown Basalt. The dog is not on a leash.
Credit Molly Dove / Aspen Public Radio

Mahoney said it isn't expected that everyone will like the new ordinance, but all the town can ask is that everyone follows the rules. 

“As with any law, it’s not always perfect. So these are things we want to implement and put into place. It’s treading new waters for us, and we can course-correct if necessary,” he said. “But as far as responding to the feedback we got, it’s a pretty even-handed way to deal with this situation.”

Back at Arbaney Park, some of the dogs are slowing down, tired after playing in the sun with their friends. 

Most of the dog owners said they will follow the rules and leash their dogs when they walk home from the park, but Leigh Letson said he does not usually leash his dog, and he is not going to start now.