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by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Wilsonvilles public off-leash dog park at Memorial Park will be one of the only exceptions to a new ordinance requiring dog owners to keep their pets leashed in public. Dog owners who allow their pets to roam public property unleashed will face up to $250 in fines under a new ordinance OK’d by the Wilsonville City Council.

The ordinance, approved at the April 21 council meeting, also requires dog owners to properly dispose of dog waste while on public property. The leash rule does not apply to the city’s posted off-leash dog park areas or service animals.

“I think that the spirit of this is really going to be useful in reducing conflict because it will reduce debates on sidewalks about ‘Did this dog pass the personality test to be friendly?’” said Councilor Julie Fitzgerald. “These things can go on and on and lead to bad things.”

City Attorney Mike Kohlhoff told councilors at a work session prior to the regular council meeting that in the past the city has largely allowed Clackamas County to enforce dog-related regulations in the city. In recent years, however, county budget cuts have hit that particular area of county service hard, resulting in limited to no enforcement in Wilsonville.

“They’re basically not enforcing any of the leash laws,” Kohlhoff said. “And we began to receive complaints from citizens in that regard. So in order to be responsive but not go into the whole dog control area, we came up with a limited approach for keeping dogs under control with leashes, basically on public property. We usually see it in run-ins with kids and other citizens on sidewalks.”

Despite some questions from councilors over the language of the ordinance, they were largely supportive of the new rules, which will take effect after a second reading on May 5.

Enforcement also was at the center of the discussion. Councilors agreed the new leash law should help reduce conflicts between dog owners and other pedestrians on public sidewalks — by far the largest single type of encounter that generates complaints. But they also questioned how much leeway dog owners would receive from police officers tasked with ensuring compliance.

“Is there a legal term for ‘at-large’?” asked Councilor Susie Stevens. “I know what it means, but give me an example.”

She added that she knows people who might go so far as to attach a leash to their dog and then drop the leash itself, claiming the dog still is leashed.

“Most cities look at it as the dog must be under the owner’s control,” City Manager Bryan Cosgrove said.

“This ordinance wouldn’t allow that on public property,” added Assistant City Attorney Barbara Jacobson. “There are a lot of people who think their dogs will come when called, and then they don’t.”

“How we implement any ordinance is we always try to start off with compliance,” Cosgrove continued. “We’re not looking to be punitive; there’s a lot of factors that go into citing someone, but generally the goal is compliance.”

City staff originally considered applying the leash requirement to the entire city, on both public and private property. But enforcement and other issues, as well as concerns from councilors, led them to shift course.

“We made it a bright line that it’s only on public property,” Jacobson said.

Before now, the city’s dog ordinance only spoke to “vicious” animals, she added, not those considered “at-large.”

“The sheriff asked us to clarify our language because he felt it was too ambiguous,” she said.

The new rules will carry fines of up to $250 for violations. But Jacobson assured councilors the police department would be taking an educational approach to the new ordinance instead of automatically issuing citations.

Stevens and Councilor Scott Starr expressed concern this could change over time.

But, Fitzgerald said, that even if this happens the council could revisit the matter and make necessary changes. In the meantime, she added, the complaints are mounting.

“I think the way that people are these days, this is a deal that can be frightening for people,” she said. “And I don’t mean just throwing a ball down the block; if you can simply say ‘there’s a leash law,’ it helps.”

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