Restraining Order

City Councilwoman Karin Uhlich puts the kibosh on plans for a new dog park

Hounded: Dante Perna ended up with more than $400 in fines after he let his dog, Bubba, off his leash at McCormick Park.
Dante Perna was just hoping to let his dog run around on a warm March afternoon when he let his small corgi off his leash at McCormick Park, 2900 N. Columbus Blvd.

"We had him on the leash at first," Perna says. "But he gets all choked up--he gets all cough-y and choke-y--so we took him off the leash and walked over to the end of the park."

But little Bubba's moment of illicit play carried a steep price when it caught the eye of a nearby county animal-control officer, who cited Perna for having an unleashed, unlicensed and unvaccinated dog.

Perna tried to refuse to sign the citation, but he caved in after the cops showed up and threatened to take him into custody.

Perna, who still thinks the animal-control officer should have just given him a warning, got Bubba's legal status straightened out and then turned down a plea deal to pay $200 and attend an eight-hour class.

"About how to put my dog on leash?" he asks. "Come on."

Instead, the health-food store produce manager decided to fight back in court. His defense?

"A friend of mine had informed me about Arizona constitutional rights, which claim that my dog is my private property, and being that he is my private property, someone cannot tell me how to take care of him, that he needs to be inoculated, blah, blah, blah," he says.

The argument didn't sway the judge. After a series of hearings in city court, Perna got socked with $450 in fines.

"I'm not a lawyer," Perna says. "I don't know how to defend myself properly in court. I felt that I could talk to the judge, and he would be reasonable. I thought he might fine me $100."

Perna is just one of many Tucsonans who have violated leash laws by letting their hounds run loose in parks, washes and schoolyards.

Benny Young, the deputy director of Tucson Parks and Recreation, says dogs shouldn't be running free unless they're in one of six "off-leash" areas in city parks.

Despite occasional problems, the fenced areas are a big hit among dog owners. At Reid Park, the current off-leash area is being replaced with a new one that will have separate areas for large and small dogs. Parks and Rec will also rotate sections where dogs can cavort, so the turf will have a chance to recover from the damage of stampeding paws.

Young says Tucsonans want more dog parks, but the only plans for a new off-leash area have hit a snag: Parks and Rec was planning on using $335,000 in county bond funds to build a new off-leash area at Rio Vista Park, located at the north end of Tucson Boulevard, just north of Prince Road.

Rio Vista, which bumps up against the banks of the Rillito riverbed, has already become something of a rogue dog park, with visitors letting their hounds run loose off their leashes on a grassy lawn in the evenings.

Peter Thompson was among a handful of folks who were out earlier this week at Rio Vista with their dogs. He regularly brings Molly, a "South African hyena hound," out to play with other dogs.

"It's a great park," Thompson says. "In the spring, when it's cooler, there will be nights when you'll have 30 or 40 dogs here. It's a good place for Molly to socialize."

But not everyone is happy about the loose pack, according to Sue DeArmond, who lives in the area.

"We've had problems," DeArmond says. "There are a lot of equestrian folks in this area, and we've had encounters with horses and dogs and riders. We've had children trying to use the tot lot, and parents aren't comfortable with the dogs off their leashes."

Rio Vista's original master plan includes a fenced off-leash area covering about one-third of an acre, but park planners now want at least two acres to avoid problems such as the turf damage that has plagued a smaller dog park on Sixth Avenue south of Grant Road, which is temporarily closed.

"One of things we've learned is that if they're too small, they don't function very well," Young says. "They need to be large enough that we can close down areas to repair the turf or rest the turf. They need to be large enough that we can separate large dogs and small dogs."

But when some of the park's neighbors saw the plans for a two-acre dog park, they complained it was too big and would create too much traffic along Tucson Boulevard. DeArmond says that a two-acre fenced area violates the original idea of keeping Rio Vista as primarily a desert park.

"We realize that there's a dog-park shortage here in Tucson, but the original plan was not a natural-resource dog park," DeArmond says.

George Pettit, an aide Ward 3 Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, says that Uhlich decided to oppose the dog park at Rio Vista after attending a neighborhood meeting last month. Uhlich, who was out of town last week, has asked Parks and Rec to find another location for an off-leash area.

Young says it may be tough to find an alternative location, because transferring the bond money to a new project is not an easy thing. Changes have to go through advisory committees and be approved by the City Council and the Pima County Board of Supervisors.

"It's a fairly extensive process," Young says. "I wouldn't say it's impossible, but it's not very likely."

Instead, the money may just be spent sprucing up Rio Vista, perhaps with a little more turf or mesquite trees.

"But that doesn't mean dogs should be let off leashes," Young warns.

Thompson says he's disappointed to hear that Molly won't have a larger--and legal--playground at Rio Vista anytime soon. But he expects that people will still bring their dogs, no matter what the city does.

"We're still going to come down here," he says. "It'd be nice if they built what they said they would."

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