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Free or leashed? Miami Beach debates future of dog park

A pilot program allowing dogs without leashes in a Miami Beach park has given pet owners one more option for play. But some residents and local lawmakers want to press the pause button.

Leash-less dogs were allowed during restricted times, inside a triangular area of South Pointe Park, at 1 Washington Ave., beginning in June 2010.

Since then, the program has racked up about 900 code violations, most involving off-leash dogs being outside the designated area and hours.

Many neighbors also are concerned about the free dogs chasing or biting people. Without an enclosure, it’s hard to contain the dogs, they say.

A proposal to surround the off-leash dog area with a fence was shot down by the city’s Design Review Board, but a three-foot hedge is likely to clear the board at its meeting on Wednesday.

Including South Pointe, there are six dog parks in Miami Beach.

“We are a city of dog parks,” spokeswoman Nanette Rodriguez said.

But while the Flamingo, Pinetree, Washington Avenue, Belle Isle and North Shore Open Space “bark parks” all have gates and fences surrounding the off-leash areas, South Pointe has no enclosure for dogs.

Rodriguez said the city had to get special permission from Miami-Dade County to allow off-leash dogs without an enclosure at the park.

Following several discussions among city commissioners, the South Pointe off-leash pilot program was approved in September 2009, pending the county’s approval as well. The six-month trial period allowed off-leash dogs between sunrise and 9 a.m. only in a triangular area of the park, bordered on one side by the water.

The Miami-Dade County Commission approved the pilot program in May 2010, and South Pointe Park was opened to off-leash dogs the next month.

The Miami Beach City Commission has since extended the pilot program several times and expanded off-leash hours. Dogs may now run free in the specified area of the park every day from sunrise to 10 a.m., and from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday.

On Wednesday, the commission will decide whether to extend the program through June 30. The previous extension was set to expire March 31.

Miami Beach City Commissioner Deede Weithorn says there are enforcement problems with the program.

Weithorn runs and cycles in the park, and said she sees dog owners breaking the rules all the time by allowing their dogs outside the program hours and location.

The dogs, Weithorn said, often take off after skateboards, bicycles, skaters and, most worrying for her, running children. Once, she said, a dog chased her and bit her pants leg while she was running in the park.

“This is not what was anticipated,” she said, adding that she’s received about a dozen emails from concerned parents and neighborhood associations in the last week.

Some of the emails expressed an interest in moving the off-leash program to a different location, which Weithorn said is an idea the City Commission should consider.

A dog lover, Weithorn understands the need for off-leash areas, but she said South Pointe Park may not be the right place.

“I’d like the dog owners to be able to have what they want, but I’m certainly not going to do it at the expense of public safety,” she said.

But safety isn’t the issue, some dog owners say.

Didi Mirmelli has been bringing her daughter’s year-old golden doodle, Montego, to the dog area at South Pointe Park every day since January.

She said she’s never seen a dog chase or act aggressive to a human at the park. They sometimes wander over to people sitting on the walk, which is why Mirmelli thinks the city should install benches along with the hedge on the north side of the dog park.

Most of all, Mirmelli hopes the City Commission realizes that South Pointe’s dog park, the largest dog park in Miami Beach, is a necessity for residents.

“Dogs need a place to run around, because otherwise there’s pent-up aggression,” she said. “If they did away with this, it would be criminal.”