Citizen complaint leads to review of ordinance

Man says township should have dog park

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Sparta resident John Murphy asked the Sparta Town Council at their March 11 meeting to designate a remote area in the town for dogs to run without a leash, something the town currently does not offer.

Murphy’s request came after he complained to the council about getting eight or nine summonses over the past five years for letting his dogs run unleashed, which is a violation of town code.

Murphy, 80, said he has a heart condition and is not able to walk his two large Labradors on a leash. Murphy said he instead lets them run loose in a remote area where no one is around along the glen adjacent to Glen Mountain Road.

Murphy said the town’s animal control officer often singles him out.

“He’s just looking for me,” Murphy said. “I’m walking along the tracks. There’s nobody up there. When I come back, he’s just waiting for me. He doesn’t approach me, he just mails me a ticket.”

Murphy was adamant that the council act on his request immediately and suggested the council designate an area for dogs to legally run unleashed.

“I think you can act on this," he said. "There is no reason not to.”

Interim Township Manager Steven Levinson said this is the first time he’s heard about the tickets Murphy has received and said he wants to discuss the issue with him.

Sparta Police Department Sgt. John Paul Beebe, who oversees the animal control officer, confirmed that through a three year period, Murphy paid more than $1,000 in tickets.

“I sympathize that these dogs are large and hard to control,” Beebe said. “He’s been given warnings prior to getting cited. He refuses to comply.”

Murphy said other towns including Vernon, Wantage, Lafayette, and Denville have dog parks and didn’t see why Sparta couldn’t have one.

Mayor Molly Ann Whilesmith said before the township acted on Murphy’s request they would need to get the public’s input.

“We understand that there were some citizens that would like to have a place for dogs to run, which is why they were attempting to go forward with fundraising and opening a dog park. We understand your concern, and as we’re hearing about it for the first time, please be patient with us,” Whilesmith said.

“The ordinance that is in place is in the interest of public safety. Townships are not eliminating animal control safety ordinances, but are in fact strengthening them. If we have a public area permitting unleashed dogs, and a citizen is bitten, then it creates a liability for the township,” Whilesmith said.

Murphy said that at one point a judge told him he might want to get an attorney and get counsel for the mounting tickets.

“My last ticket was $340,” Murphy said.

Beebe said the animal control officer is compassionate.

“He exercises a tremendous amount of discretion. He understands the responsible pet owner thinks of their dog as a member of the family. He issues more warnings than summonses,” Beebe said.

Beebe said the officer is seeking compliance of the ordinance, not to give out tickets.

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