Newton Becoming More Dog Friendly
Newton has approximately 3,500 licensed dogs (and perhaps at least twice as many currently unlicensed), making dog owners one of the largest user groups of Newton's green spaces.
The year 2003 marked the beginning of an effort to provide "off leash" opportunities in Newton, with a public hearing in the Aldermanic Programs and Services Committee. The process finally resulted in a trial off-leash ordinance, which, after a number of extensions, expired this past summer. In that period, only one off leash area was brought online, at old Cold Spring Park, a site which received much notoriety and usage and was subject to controversy from neighbors. There really needed to be more sites throughout the city if off leash was to be ultimately successful in Newton.
The Off Leash Area Working Group (OLAWG) was formed in late 2009 under the auspices of the Newton Parks and Recreation (P&R) Department to formulate an alternate way of dealing with off-leash. The group meets weekly (currently on Thursdays, 4 pm in Room 202, City Hall) and is open to the public. Visit its website for meeting schedules, agendas, minutes, public presentations, and other off-leash information.
From January to April of 2010, the members met, surveyed dog owners, and developed a process for selecting locations using criteria such as ADA compliance, aesthetic impact, conservation impact, consideration of abutters, cost, current off-leash status, distribution of parks, enforcement, impact on other usage, access, parking, site characteristics, and size. These were applied to green spaces throughout the city. Of 76 green space sites originally considered, 42 were selected for site visits and a final 24 were recommended for further review. These potential off-leash areas, representing locations in every ward, were the following:
- (Ward 1) Forte Park, Hunnewell Playground, Walnut Park
- (Ward 2) Halloran Sports Complex, Claflin Playground, Cabot Park, Edmands Park
- (Ward 3) McGrath Park, West Newton Common
- (Ward 4) Auburndale Cove, Flowed Meadow, Hamilton Playground, Norumbega
- (Ward 5) Old Cold Spring Park, Braceland Playground, Richardson Playground
- (Ward 6) Newton Centre, Newton Highlands Playground, Thompsonville Playground, Weeks Park
- (Ward 7) Burr Park
- (Ward 8) Brown/Oak Hill Middle School Playground, Newton South HS (near tennis courts only), and Nahanton Park.
A new off-leash ordinance was formulated in early summer and was adopted by the Board of Aldermen in August, 2010. It established rules applicable to all off-leash areas. Dogs must be:
- in control at all times
- leashed when entering and exiting the park
- licensed, vaccinated, and healthy
- over 4 months old
- not in heat.
Owners must remove waste and obey all rules or be subject to a $50 violation and may be banned if the subject of a complaint, investigation, order or proceeding under the applicable City or State laws. A maximum of three dogs per person are permitted off-leash at a time.
OLAWG helped formulate proposals for a series of new off-leash areas under the new ordinance to be considered by the Parks and Recreation Commission. In August, the proposals for Claflin and McGrath Park were approved subject to formulation of rules, regulations, and fee structure being in place. In September, Old Cold Spring Park was approved under the new ordinance and was given approval to stay in operation. Hunnewell Park was also approved subject to a fence being installed. In November, proposals for a Newton Centre playground and for Cabot Park were approved. Each of these locations has unique conditions. In most cases, off-leash activity was approved for a specific defined portion of the area and, in some cases, for certain hours or seasons ( e.g. , Claflin), for a limited number of dogs (Newton Center), or with a fence provision ( e.g., at Cabot, the off-leash area will be at the little used northern end of the park and will require fencing due to its street exposure on two sides.)
The actual opening of these areas for off-leash dog use will likely take place in the spring of 2011, pending fencing, signage, and other necessary amenities. Additional areas will be brought forth in coming months before the Parks and Recreation Commission.
On Thursday, December 16, 2010, a proposal will be heard by the Conservation Commission for an off-leash area at Norumbega Park that is under its jurisdiction. This area has a 30 year history as an informal off-leash area, and the proposal includes a portion of the park in and around the oval walking path, which is less vegetated than the surrounding area. The area is surrounded by chain link fence on three sides. An additional fence (perhaps with an open bottom to allow passage of small animals) is proposed to prevent canine access to the steep slope to the Charles River. Three entrance gates are proposed. A local group, the Norumbega Off Leash Ambassadors (NOLA) Club, has formed to help educate current users about "petiquette" and responsible behavior expected of dog owners, to help maintain the walking path ground cover, and to clean up stray trash and waste. Under the proposal, Parks and Recreation may assume some of the maintenance responsibilities for this park. Approval would be revocable by the Conservation Commission, and additional rules for use of the area could be added.
With the advent of off-leash areas in Newton comes the question of how to pay for additional fences, maintenance, and dog bags. A fund has been established by the dog community for the purpose of paying for the fences needed to open some of the parks mentioned here. Already, thousands have been raised, and in a relatively short time. The fundraising activity has been immensely aided by a generous four-to-one matching grant from the Leveen Family Fund (under which a $100 donation generates $500 to the fund!). If you would like to contribute please send a check made out to "City of Newton" with the notation "Dog Parks" in the memo line, and mail it to OLAWG member Lee McIntyre, 607 Commonwealth Avenue, Newton, MA 02459. Lee is helping administer the fund.
There are recommendations on the table for a new fee structure for off-leash users in Newton, to help cover maintenance costs for off-leash areas. On the table now is a medallion system with a fee of $50 per dog for residents and $100 per dog for non-residents to use the approved off-leash areas. Newton-based professional dog walkers would pay a fee of $250 for the first dog and $75 for each additional medallion; out of city professionals would pay $350 for the first and $100 for each additional. An investigation by the city's legal department is under way on the question of whether such a fee structure would be consistent with the state's Recreational Use Statute, which provides liability protection to owners who allow public use of their land at no charge.
By this time next year, dog owners in Newton may have ample opportunity to legally play with their dogs in off-leash areas throughout the entire City of Newton.