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Release the Hounds: D.C. Considers Off-Leash Law

Capitol Hill’s Many Federal Green Spaces Would Be Exempt From Dog Park Legislation

A bill being considered by the District of Columbia City Council might soon allow District dog owners to let their dogs run off-leash in D.C.-owned parks, but the law, if passed, wouldn’t open up much more space for dogs on Capitol Hill.

D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) introduced the Dog Park Establishment Amendment Act of 2005 before the city council in January, and the bill is expected to pass through council with few problems.

“It’s very straightforward,” Graham said about the legislation, which would permit specified D.C. parkland areas to be used as off-leash dog parks and allow the mayor to promulgate rules for park operations.

“The basic problem is that currently there’s a law in the District of Columbia that requires dogs to be leashed,” Graham said. “So as long as you have this law requiring leashes, you’ve got a situation where you can’t have a leash-free dog park on public property.”

But, as is the case in Councilmember Sharon Ambrose’s (D-Ward 6) ward, which includes Capitol Hill, many of the parks are federally owned and would thus be exempt from the law.

“We don’t have very much open space in Ward 6. There are some places in the city where it would be easier to find open space for dog parks than it would be for some others,” Ambrose said, adding that the larger parks in her ward “tend to be federal.”

The proposed legislation would amend the Animal Control Act of 1979 to “authorize the establishment of off-leash dog exercise areas,” according to the bill. To get around the current leash law, the sentence, “A dog in a dog park and under the verbal command of a responsible adult, shall not be considered at large,” will be inserted into the D.C. Official Code.

One area on the Hill where dogs are not considered at large is at the Congressional Cemetery, 1801 E St. SE. As privately owned land, the cemetery is able to allow dog owners to let their dogs run off-leash on the grounds. In return, the cemetery asks for a donation of $125 plus $40 per dog, which grants membership into the K-9 Corps, as the group of dog owners who utilize the cemetery are known. The money generated from the K-9 Corps makes up about one-third of the cemetery’s operating budget.

A couple of years ago, Patrick Crowley, vice chairman of the board of directors for the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery, said the board considered putting a cap on K-9 Corps memberships, but he said a cap would be “limiting revenues, not limiting attendance,” and the revenue is needed to help care for the grounds.

But for those Hill dog owners who don’t live near the cemetery, there are not many dog-friendly options, which may lead to owners running their dogs off-leash illegally.

“I think the law is honored more in the breach than in the practice, if you will,” Ambrose said about the current D.C. leash law, which she said is “pretty strict.” But soon, dog owners might not be breaking the law, as Ambrose said she sees the dog park legislation passing council.

However, while Graham agreed that the bill “should pass this year,” he also mentioned that the dog park legislation is “not for every neighborhood.”

Last year Graham said an “extensive” hearing was held on the subject of off-leash dog parks in the District, and since then there has been both positive and negative response from the neighborhood wards. He said in his ward, which includes Adams Morgan, U Street, Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights and Kalorama Triangle, the response has been positive, but residents in other wards have expressed concern about issues such as dog waste and noise.

“In some neighborhoods there’s controversy,” Graham said. “Assuming you have the right location and support, I think [public response is] all positive. Dogs need the exercise — the socialization of the dogs and the socialization of the people with the dogs, it’s a positive recreational experience.”

Crowley said the K-9 Corps donations help in the upkeep of the cemetery grounds, but he, too, said he hopes the legislation passes council because “we don’t want every dog at the cemetery.”

Ambrose said it’s “hard to have dogs in a tight city environment,” but with any luck, the dog park legislation will help make it easier for dog owners.

“I think that everybody just has to remember that when you live in an inner-city neighborhood, there are some things that really are much more difficult to accommodate than if you live in a suburban neighborhood,” Ambrose said. “Dog runs are perhaps one of those things. You just have less open space — the District of Columbia is a very built environment.”

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