Needham resident Huajun Liu walks his dog Nova in the town forest/ Credit: Needham Observer

Come fall, the town may be ready to take on the potentially contentious issue of designating spaces in town where dogs will be allowed to roam off leash.

It’s been a year since the ad hoc Active Recreation Assets Working Group wrapped up six months of work and recommended the town establish a pilot program for off-leash dog areas. It has not moved forward.

The Select Board is empowered to “authorize an area or areas to be used as off-leash areas for dogs.” Board member Heidi Frail, co-chair of the working group, said that effort is scheduled to begin in the fall.

“I think it’s a really important issue because there’s a real need and there’s a real desire to see some action, and not only on the part of those dog owners who wish to run their dogs off leash,” said Frail. “It’s also on the part of dog owners and residents who don’t want off-leash dogs everywhere. They want them to have a place so that they’re not every other place.”

Ten years ago, following a three-year effort by the Off-Leash Recreation Working Group, the town set aside a half-acre adjacent to the Community Farm at the end of Pine Street for off-leash dog access. That became the town dog park, but after an initial period of enthusiasm it has fallen into disrepair and is infrequently used.

The current state of the Needham Dog Park/ Credit: Needham Observer

Bill Paulson was a member of the group that worked for the creation of the dog park. “It was nice of them to give us the space,” he said. “We were glad we had something because we needed some space. But they wouldn’t give it to us as a permanent space.” Not having that permanent space made it hard to fundraise on behalf of the park, Paulson explained. He said potential donors, especially foundations, would not commit funds when the long-term status of the site was uncertain.

A staunch advocate for as many off-leash areas as possible, Paulson is clearly frustrated by the lack of progress.

“I don’t know why it’s so tough,” he said. “I mean, they do it in Brookline or Wellesley and in other communities around us. Then there’s Newton, right?” The neighboring community is home to three dog parks. ”So this is not rocket science. It’s been done. It’s being done in other towns around us.

“If you look at other towns, they use playing fields off hours and off season,” Paulson said. “But Parks and Rec talks a lot about dog poop and, I don’t know, what are we supposed to do about that? I don’t see it being as much of an issue as they do.”

The scoop on the poop

From Ed Olsen’s perspective as superintendent of Parks and Forestry, dog poop is most assuredly a big issue, as it’s his staff that has to deal with it at the town’s playing fields.

“If there’s dog crap on the fields, we gotta pick it up,” he said. “It’s not like we can line-paint around it or skip the poop. No, we gotta get out the shovels and go back out there, find it, scrape it, dispose of it. So it just adds hours and really, it’s a disgusting part of our jobs, probably the worst part of our jobs. But we have to do it. We’re the last line of defense.”

Olsen noted it is actually dog urine that is far more harmful to the fields. “It can burn,” he said. “Female dog urine will burn, or it will accelerate growth.

“So that is where you affect the playing surface and blotch it up and kill it. If you kill it from a urine burn or urea burn, it usually fills into weeds afterwards. So those are the harmful effects of not being mindful where your dog goes to the bathroom.”

Biscuit waits for his human companion to throw a ball at Claxton Field/ Credit: Needham Observer

Olsen counts himself an advocate for the establishment of designated off-leash dog areas. “I have talked to the town manager’s office and I pleaded again last week to say, ‘Where are we? We already had that conversation.’”

He was referring to his testimony last year before the working group. “I made some recommendations and we haven’t really done anything. Let’s keep moving with that because the dog issue is never going away. I suggested Mills Field, in its wooded area,” Olsen said. “Quite frankly, a lot of people who disobey the rules go there anyway and do what they want.”

The working group did recommend that Mills Field on Gould Street be evaluated, along with the park at the former Hillside School, Rosemary Trail and a wooded area off Harris Avenue near Great Plain Avenue.

Olsen said he’s encouraged that the effort will resume in the fall and the town has asked for citizens’ input. “Hopefully, the Bill Paulsons, the good guys out there, can make sure we go in the right direction for everybody.”

Paulson has no shortage of ideas, but he worries about the excess of emotion around the issue. He also acknowledges that dog owners who don’t clean up after their dogs or who don’t grasp that not everybody wants a close encounter with a dog don’t help the cause.

“It’s worth slapping the dog owners on the wrist a little,” he said. “We have to police ourselves or we’re never going to get cooperation from the town to do this stuff.”

Other stakeholders include the Police Department, which responded to 214 calls related to dog issues in 2023, as well as 191 other calls specifically about off-leash violations. There’s also Park and Recreation, and not just for their concern for trails and playing fields. The town’s sole park ranger, Wu Ping Liao, is often put in the difficult position of interacting with dog owners who neglect to pick up after their pets.

“It’s a multipart problem, for sure,” said Frail, who agrees it needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later. “It’s not as urgent as, say, the stormwater issues that we’ve been discussing,” she said. “And it doesn’t have a deadline, like the housing issues that we’ve been discussing.” She placed it in the category of the long desired Tree Summit, which might be closer to the front of the Select Board’s line than the off-leash issue.

“Like the tree issue, it’s definitely on the radar and definitely something that needs to be dealt with,” said Frail.

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