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When freedom isn’t free

In Brookline, owners howl at proposed dog park fees

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By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / December 2, 2010

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BROOKLINE — They are the characters of the neighborhood, the stocky mixed breed named Buck who can take your feet out from under you in a chase for a ball, and Lola, the precious 8-year-old standard poodle. Sophie, the wheaten terrier, is known as the thief of the playground.

If any park can bring about a sense of community, it’s a dog park, where owners mingle with neighbors as their canines sniff and scuffle.

But, in what residents are calling a tax on their dogs, Brookline officials are proposing to charge a fee for the right to let dogs run off-leash in designated parks. Residents would have to pay $50 a year to let a dog loose in the parks; nonresidents would have to pay $100. And the fees for park usage by professional dog-walkers would be considerably steeper: $500 for those who live in Brookline, and $750 for those who do not.

Dog owners say the proposal puts them in an awkward position: pay the fee, or risk having their beloved canines turn into overweight, antisocial couch potatoes.

“It’s so great to have a park where you can come to and not get hassled,’’ said Ann Equitz, who is buying a condominium near the Brookline Avenue playground at the Boston line, where she and Lola frolicked yesterday afternoon. She said she would have to pay the fee, for the sake of her dog.

“It’s one of the reasons we moved to Brookline,’’ she said.

Roberta Greenberg, owner of the tennis-ball-stealing Sophie, asked why dog owners should pay a special fee.

“Why can’t we just have a nice dog park?’’ she said.

Erin Gallentine, Brookline’s parks and open space director, said the fees would help pay for cleanup and maintenance of parks. The revenue could also help fund a part-time park ranger year-round — and an additional one in the summer.

Dogs would receive a tag noting that their owners had paid the off-leash park fees. Dogs without the tags would have to remain leashed.

The Board of Selectmen could decide on the issue as soon as next week.

Brookline already has a program, called Green Dog, instituted about eight years ago to address conflict between dog owners and people who wanted to use their parks dog-free. The town has 14 designated spots where dogs can run off leash, under conditions including that the dogs must be licensed and able to follow voice commands.

Gallentine said the program costs the town about $55,000 a year to operate. The proposed fees, which could generate about $30,000 a year, would help pay for the maintenance and the monitoring needed to continue the program in its current form.

“We can’t run this on volunteers,’’ Gallentine said. “It’s too big. It’s too important. This program, without administration and support, will fail, and that will just be a real loss to the people who use this program responsibly every day.’’

Most of the parks have off-leash hours from dawn to 9 a.m. Others allow dogs off-leash until 1 p.m. Only two — Brookline Avenue and Larz Anderson Park — allow dogs to run off-leash until dusk, and that’s only from December through February.

Only a few of the parks are completely fenced in. And nothing stops a group of children from playing baseball in a designated dog park.

Several dog owners said yesterday that if the town plans to start charging for dog parks, then the dog parks should be available with fewer time restrictions.

“If they want us to pay, they need us to feel like we have a right to be here,’’ said Hope Engelmann, a Jamaica Plain woman who brought her 3-year-old George, a Boston terrier, to Brookline Avenue yesterday. She said police are known to patrol the park at the afternoon closing time to make sure the dogs are gone.

“I think it’s ridiculous, especially when they kick us out,’’ she said.

Gigi Callender, who walks her daughter’s dog, Georgie — she refers to the dog as her granddaughter — questioned what type of new programs would be put in place if the fees are instituted.

“This shouldn’t just be a money maker,’’ she said. “It’s sort of getting out of hand.’’

At the entrance to the Brookline Avenue park yesterday, a note was left on a trash container — used for dog waste — alerting dog owners to the proposed changes. And so the proposed fee became the talk of the dog park.

While Bootz the French bulldog played, his owner asked whether the town would start charging children who play baseball. And while Willow the little beagle wandered about, Cressida Lerman, a professional dog walker, questioned whether the company she works for would pass the new fees along to clients.

But most agreed that if they could not fight the fees, they would still pay them.

“As long as we have the opportunity to keep the dogs free, so be it,’’ said Jim Wollison, who is in the plastics business, as his dog Buck pranced around.

Milton Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com.