While a public hearing on a proposed leash law brought out Southold residents on both sides of the issue, the overwhelming majority of those present spoke passionately about the need to use common sense when legislating whether or not four-legged friends should run free on town beaches.
Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell began the public hearing by saying the resolution to vote on the amendments to the town code -- which would have required that dogs on town beaches be leashed -- would be tabled.
"I don't believe that the town board will be acting to pass this legislation in its current form," Russell said, adding that he did believe the town needed to act soon -- but that compromise should be key.
To that end, Russell suggested that a community forum be organized to allow residents to speak. He asked if the community would support a public meeting, and was met with applause. And, when the supervisor asked if residents would agree to work together toward a solution that was fair to all, they agreed.
"We need to pass something soon," Russell said. "We have a growing issue in Southold Town."
He reminded residents that the town code as it currently stands does not allow for any dogs on public beaches at all.
Russell also said that the discussion did not arise out of an incident last year on Bailie Beach, when Mattituck resident Dan Catullo said he was attacked by a dog, but by a growing number of concerns expressed by residents in areas including New Suffolk.
"There is a myth out there that one man came to the town board and we rushed pell mell to placate him," Russell said. He added that the town code as it stands, was written in 1981, is restrictive to dog owners -- but a fair balance must be reached.
"This is a growing conflict," he said. "We need something fair to all sides."
Brian Keller, who has lived in Mattituck 35 years and is a dog owner, said while no one should live in fear of being attacked, he takes his dog to the beach in the early morning hours and rarely sees another person walking on the Sound. Keller said he always carries a leash in that event that he sees another person or dog.
"It's common sense," he said. Dog owners, he said, should be mandated to carry a leash. "That's reasonable."
The proposed legislation, he said, "is unreasonable and certainly unfair to dog owners."
Peconic resident Peter Terranova, who is not a dog owner, said while legislation needs to address rights of beach-goers, the rights of pet owners who are in compliance with town code should also be considered. Terranova asked why the new legislation would not allow a leashed dog on the beach when a lifeguard is on duty.
Some Mattituck residents suggested areas near Bailie Beach heading west, where there are no lifeguards and rarely any people out strolling or sunbathing, be designated as dog beaches.
Russell and Councilwoman Jill Doherty said some of the areas in question fall under the jurisdiction of the Mattituck Park district, or are county beaches, and not controlled by the town.
Eugene Doherty, who said his dog was the one that sparked the Bailie Beach incident involving Catullo, said his pooch did not attack Catullo.
"He wanted to lick him and he lay down in the sand," he said, adding that he walks on the beach at 7 a.m. so the dog can swim. "I hardly meet anyone on the beach. I don't understand what the big deal is."
Catullo was furious. "I'm livid," he said, adding that the dog was the size of a "black bear," and that he was knocked over by another dog, causing bruises.
Russell told both men the incident had been resolved in court and told them to focus on comments relating to the proposed local law. "We don't want to rehash the past," he said.
Dogs are an integral part of Southold's lifestyle and the reason why he chose to live in the hamlet, Lewis Topper of Mattituck said. "I don't want this to be a place where dog owners cannot walk dogs without a leash," he said. "That's like living a major urban area, and this is not."
He added that all the dog owners he has met are responsible. Topper also applauded the board for deciding to table the vote and hold a community meeting.
The current code, Russell said, "is rather draconian and anti-dog owner; we want to move the line to allow everyone access -- with reasonable restrictions." Of the suggested community forum, Russell added, "Instead of hitting the legislation like we're hitting a pinata, you need to be here at the community meeting and understand compromise is needed on both sides."
Southold resident Dawn Bennett suggested the board look to towns such as Southampton, which has rules in place for certain hours when dogs are allowed on the beach; the board said they have been pursuing that route.
Steve Feeney, of Southold, said while he likes dogs, "Whether you let the dog run down the road or on the beach," an owner is responsible if the dog get hurt or injures someone. "I love dogs, but people come first."
Mattituck resident Susan Carpenter, who works at a vet but was speaking from a personal perspective, said the goal should be to maintain 'the quality of life that makes Southold, Southold."
Dogs that do not get enough exercise exhibit behavioral isues, she said. Carpenter suggested the town designate a few sites where dogs can go off leash. "And I'm not talking about that little farce of a dog park, " she said, adding that Southold is a water community.
"You can't legislate stupidity -- and you can't legislate common sense," she said.
Orient resident Maureen Sanders said dog owners form a community and allowing a place for dogs to be off leash is good for all.
"If you are a dog owner, you know your dogs are like children," Mattituck resident Karen Sanders said. "To not be able to let them run anywhere is like letting your child grow up never letting go of your hand."
Some said leashes would not control dogs entirely.
Catullo said the law should seek to protect the health and safety of the public and questioned those who said dog bites are "rare;" statistics indicate that more than one third of insurance claims are for dog bites, he said. "To listen to the crowd here, I'm fighting against the current."
Having been attacked five or six times over 60 years, Catullo said, "It's like being mugged six times. I ran an emergency room and seen up close and personal what dogs can do."
Terranova said a leash for a dog does not mean control -- but accountability. "There has to be some compromise and accountability," he said.
Roses added that even with a leashed dog, there are times when people can startle a dog. One little girl, she said, "came charging down the street with no parent, grabbed my dog by the face and kissed his nose. Had my dog bitten her, I could have been sued -- for a dog on a leash, minding its own business. It's not just the dogs -- maybe we need to educate everyone on how to behave with a dog they don't know."
The board closed the hearing and agreed to set a date for a public forum.