The ongoing issue of off-leash dogs in Willard’s Woods brought over 100 people to Cary Auditorium Monday night, with some, citing ecological concerns and intimidation by off-leash dogs, arguing in favor of leash restrictions, while others said the plans were unnecessary and unfair to the dog-walking community.
Both sides reported feeling threatened by those on the other side of the hotly contested issue and argued that everyone should be able to enjoy the land.
“There is absolutely no connection at all that any damage to the land is caused by off-leash dogs,” said Scott Goldberg. “On behalf of many of us…who are anti-leash, this is not acceptable.”
“Willard’s Woods should be a safe place for kids to run and play and hide,” said Bob Lee. “(Dogs) were enough of a problem for me not to bring my children there anymore.”
The Conservation Commission heard from more than 45 speakers during the two-hour hearing. In May, the commission outlined proposals to restrict the times or areas when owners can take their dogs off-leash at Willard’s Woods, a 100-acre conservation area in Lexington. One plan would restrict off-leash dogs to parts of the day or the week, while another would limit the dogs to certain areas of the park. A third option is a hybrid of the two.
These plans are a response to complaints from residents about increased dog use threatening wildlife, ecology, and other park users. This spring, a subcommittee consulted wildlife biologists to how canines affect the land.
The report, presented by commission member Charlie Wyman, said the effect of dog waste in the park is far less than fertilization from residential lawns, though trampling of plants and a scarcity of wildlife is evident. The report said this study could not link these issues to dog use.
On the other hand, “conflicts between user groups are easier to document and they clearly exist,” according to the report. The town bylaw that requires dogs to be under “immediate restraint and control” does not limit user conflicts in an area of heavy dog use, the report said.
The majority of the speakers—more than 30—spoke against restrictions, arguing that changes are unnecessary and would break up a cherished community of dog walkers.
Objections to dog use is a “not in my backyard issue” from a handful of residents, primarily those who live adjacent to the property, said Maria LoConti. She said the options put forward by the commission were “unacceptable.”
LoConti said there had been no mention of damage caused by biking. “What does more damage to the woods—four paws or two wheels?” she asked.
“Dogs on-leash means no dogs,” said Bobbi Tornheim, citing the difficulty of keeping a dog on leash when the pet is accustomed to running free. The change will threaten the “precious and fragile” community of dog walkers, she said, where she has talked to newcomers, given advice to young mothers, and told people where to get good bread in Lexington.
Julie Medley, a veterinarian, said most dogs do not get sufficient exercise, and they need to socialize. “Unless Lexington wants to be known as an anti-dog town,” she said, dogs should not be prevented from having space to run.
Others said concerns about conservation and conflict are valid. Keith Ohmart, the co-president of Citizens for Lexington Conservation, said restricting where and when dogs roam freely would protect wildlife in the woods, suggesting that additional protections would be necessary during nesting season.
“The woods are steadily deteriorating and the paths are trampled,” said Zac Gunther, 14, who lives near the woods. After a dog chased him, Gunther said, he was scared emotionally and could not be in a room with a dog for five years, though the “belligerent dog owner” told him the dog was harmless.
After the meeting, the Lexington High student said he has been attending meetings on this issue since 2006. With all the options out in the open, he said, it seemed that the commission was “getting close to an ultimatum.”
Some said dogs have deterred them from visiting the woods, citing the threat off-leash dogs pose to children, elderly, and small dogs.
Norma Floyd said she has been called a dog-hater or “not a community person” because she opposes off-leash dogs. Dog walkers “should have respect for the negative experience of those assaulted, disturbed, and harassed by off-leash dogs,” she said, noting that there are 1,975 dogs and 30,000 residents in Lexington.
Friends of Willard’s Woods, a group of off-leash dog supporters, has presented a plan for a permitting program for taking dogs off-leash, arguing that the permits would reduce the number of casual dog walkers, bring revenue for education and trash barrels in the park, and would create more accountability. Several speakers spoke in favor of this system.
Permits would be “equitable, enforceable, and would generate money for the town,” said Margery Stegman, adding that there is no continued damage done by dogs.
While the committee has said they are open to consider permits, the report cited concerns about income needed to support the program and the social cost of limiting use to those who can pay.
Several speakers said the issue has created division and hostility in the town.
“I’m tired feeling bullied in the woods,” said Dee Dee Pike, who said “nasty notes” have been left on her car. “Anger, instability, and bullying disguised as conservation concerns shouldn’t keep law-abiding people from enjoying Willard’s Woods,” said Pike, who opposes the restrictions.
Susan Hilzenrath, who lives near the woods, grew emotional as she spoke to the commission. “It’s broken my heart to see what’s happened,” Hilzenrath said, adding that she supports restricting dogs in the woods, though she is the owner of a new puppy. “Threats, abuse, intimidation…over the issue of dogs in the park. It’s totally unseemly to me.”
“I for one do not understand why we can’t coexist,” she added.
However, some praised the friendliness of the people who frequent Willard’s Woods. Sandra Levine, an abutter to the land, said she walks her Labrador in the woods three or four times a day. “People say good morning, good afternoon,” she said. “It’s the only friendly place in this town.” The statement drew a large round of applause.
With the restrictions, “you would be taking away one of the most enjoyable parts of my day,” she told the commission.
As a new resident on Suzanne Road, Ben Solky said he sees coyotes coming in and out of the woods daily. With the coyotes, he said, there are off-leash canines in the woods 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Solky added that the community of walkers—with and without dogs—have “provided the only means of meeting and talking to neighbors” in Lexington.
“For me and my wife, being new to the community, the level of instability around this issue is shocking,” he added.
Peggy Cohn gave a glimpse of letters sent to the Conservation Committee in the first five months of 2010. She said the commission has received 130 pro-dog letters and 15 anti-dog letters.
The Commission has not set a timeline for deciding the matter, though Joyce Miller, the Commission chair, said the group will decide what is best for the land, regardless of popular opinion.
“The commission is responsible for the preservation and protection of the natural resources of the town,” Miller told the crowd before the meeting. “We take that responsibility very seriously.”
After the meeting, Miller said that the commission would discuss all points of view before making a decision. While the primary responsibility of the commission is taking care of the land, she said, the commission also values “having people enjoy our conservation lands. They are so beautiful. We don’t want to close it off.”