Each day this summer, Rick Dyer has headed into the sylvan woods of Newton’s Cold Spring Park for a jog and surveillance.
Dyer, who lives up the block from the 67-acre park’s entrance, says he inevitably finds his target: Dogs springing from behind copses of white oaks and cottonwoods, unleashed and yapping, headed for the city’s experimental off-leash meadow.
‘‘I take notes on the owners — their height and such,’’ Dyer said.
In an era when dog whisperers tout the benefits of socializing dogs with other dogs, leash-free areas are the stuff of many a municipal agenda, often not without controversy. But here in the highlands of this suburb, the radical tenor of the anti-dog park campaign has taken many by surprise.
Residents opposed to the off-leash area have photographed dog owners on their way into Cold Spring Park and recorded their cars’ license plate numbers. Some stand sentry, reprimanding dog owners who allow their dogs to run loose outside the designated area and reporting the violators to police. Some have left notes on windshields of illegally parked cars. They have barraged aldermen with emails recounting the offenses. To no end. The off-leash area has remained, taking with it, the residents say, their suburban oasis.
Now, they say, they have been left with no choice but to hire a lawyer and make federal case of the matter.
In a letter mailed to Mayor David Cohen last week, Peter F. Harrington, the lawyer retained for an undisclosed fee by Dyer and other residents, warned that adding the off-leash area to the park requires approval from the US Secretary of the Interior. He argued that the off-leash area has decreased the recreational uses of the park, in violation of provisions attached to federal money given by the department for park improvements.
Jeremy Solomon, spokesman for the mayor, declined comment on the letter, saying that the city’s legal department is reviewing it.
Cold Spring’s off-leash area, the first of its kind in Newton, opened in March on a trial basis for nine months. Until then, Newton had not allowed dogs to be off-leash anywhere except on their owners’ property. The Cold Spring off-leash area is restricted to a two-acre meadow bounded by trees. Signs remind owners that dogs must be on leashes elsewhere in the park.
From the start, opponents complained of cars parked in front for their homes and dogs running rampant.
‘‘We couldn’t go on the trails because we’d get attacked by the dogs,’’ said Jim Possinger, a neighbor of the park.
Supporters say the off-leash area has made their dogs better behaved — allowing them to expend excess energy and learn to interact with one another.
‘‘You have to exercise and socialize your dog, ’’ said Liz Chinian, a Newton resident and frequent off-leash area visitor with her mini-poodle, Greta. ‘‘That’s what Cesar says,’’ she said, referring to Cesar Millan, of the National Geographic Channel’s The Dog Whisperer.
The battle between the sides has grown so pitched that regular visitors of the off-leash area have stopped parking near the entrance closest to the homes of opponents.
‘‘We felt like we were being harassed,’’ said Diane Silver, a supporter of the off-leash area, who visits daily with her mini LabraDoodle.
Opponents of the area say they are assaulted with nasty looks.
‘‘Anyone who doesn’t have a dog is looked on with attitude,’’ Dyer said.
City officials say they are hopeful that the volume of visitors to the Cold Spring off-leash area will diminish if six other proposed off-leash areas win approval. Two of those areas could be approved as soon as September. In the meantime, in an effort to appease opponents, the city recently banned parking on one side of the streets near a heavily used entrance to the park.
‘‘We want to be problem solvers,’’ said Susan Albright, an alderman and member of the off-leash advisory committee.
She said the uproar has been among the most voluble she’s experienced as an elected official.
Yet she said, ‘‘This is Newton. People speak their minds.’’
On a recent evening, as cars pulled into newly illegal spaces near an entrance to Cold Spring Park, nearby residents kept watch.
‘‘Look! Look!’’ said one woman as she eyed a Volkswagon Jetta with an out-of-state license plate. ‘‘What is that plate? Vermont? For all I know, that’s a dog-walker. Now they’re getting out and the radio is blaring. I don’t want to be a meanie and call the cops. But really.’’
She added, ‘‘Until you live here, you just can’t understand.’’