By ALLISON HORE
Callan Park in Balmain has been a popular spot for off-leash dog walking for decades.
Some days, when community sports aren’t being run, dog owners and their best friends are the only ones making use of the 60-hectare parkland.
Technically speaking, off-leash dog walking in the park is illegal outside designated zones. And the NSW Government’s Greater Sydney Parklands Authority, who recently took control of the park, has warned dog owners they could cop a fine.
Although Inner West Mayor Darcy Byrne has made it clear council has no intention to enforce the off-leash dog bans, which he calls a “ridiculous solution to a non existent problem”, the looming threat of fines has some owners concerned.
“For many years, members of the public have been able to walk their dogs off-leash in Callan Park because it is exactly the sort of place where dogs can run freely without interfering with other park users,” said Mr. Byrne.
“All of a sudden this new agency has decided that their first order of business is to start handing out fines to dog walkers, which is absurd and totally unnecessary.”
But things may be set for change.
A new Companion Animals Management Plan is being drafted for the park and, if dog-lovers get their way, it may pave the way for legal off-leash dog play in the park.
Dog owners defiant
Currently owners are only allowed by law to let their dogs off-leash on the park’s three sporting fields. However, most of the time these fields are being used by sporting clubs.
Despite the official rules, the community has been using other parts of the park, including the harbourside beaches, as off-leash play areas for decades.
Balmain local, Emma Carr, has been walking her dogs at Callan Park since she got them as puppies, “five and a bit years ago.” She said she and her pooches have had “wonderful experiences” with other dogs in the park.
“I started walking them there off leash, away from the Bay Run, of course, once they were trained sufficiently to behave themselves and come to their names when I called them,” she explained.
“I’ve had such lovely interactions with other people, especially other dog owners, in Callan Park. It really makes me feel like part of a close knit community, which was a lovely thing to find when I’d just moved halfway around the world from London!”
Although the dog-walking community has concerns about fines following the announcement, Ms. Carr said she has not seen an increase in council inspectors fining people for walking dogs off-leash and, in all her time walking her dogs there, she has never received a fine herself.
The Inner West Council confirmed to City Hub that only four penalty notices have been issued in the past 16 months for off leash offences. All of these notices were issued dog attack investigations and not via general patrolling.
Rob Stokes barks back
The NSW Government has assured dog owners they are not cracking down on canines.
Speaking on ABC radio, Planning and Public Spaces Minister Rob Stokes said he did not request nor support the issuing of fines for anything other than “behaviour that is illegal and dangerous.”
He said it is the role of the council to fulfill their responsibilities, but agreed it would be “ridiculous” for the council to target dog owners.
Throughout April, Greater Sydney Parklands held a number of workshops for pet owners to help inform the new companion animal plan which they say will provide “clear direction on managing dogs in Callan Park.”
Mr. Stokes said through their consultation on the management plan, the parklands authority is “doing the opposite” of banning dogs.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure that Callan Park is being properly managed, it hasn’t been for years because it hasn’t had a body to look after it with clear rules,” he explained.
“The reality is, as the law currently stands dogs are supposed to be on leashes. We want to make sure that it’s legal and it’s possible for dogs to be off-leash.”
He could not confirm or deny that off-leash dog walking would be allowed in more areas of the park following the review, however, he said it is the outcome he would like to see.
“[Off-leash walking being allowed] is certainly the outcome I would like to see,” he said.
“But until we do this process, the reality is, that if someone is injured or someone is bitten or if a dog is hurt, there are liabilities that could ultimately be borne by the taxpayer and that’s not right.”
Drafting a policy
When the consultation period ends in May, Greater Sydney Parklands will outline a draft management plan will identify suitable on-leash and off-leash areas for the park, as well as detail what amenities need to be provided to better facilitate pets.
Suggested amenities include more bins around the park and plastic bag dispensers so owners can properly dispose of their dog’s waste. Bubblers with built in dog bowls and fenced off areas- either for dogs or those who wish to avoid dogs- have also been suggested.
And it’s not only dog owners rallying behind the plan. The Balmain and District Football Club has also given a thumbs up to the proposal for a mix of off-leash, on-leash and time share spaces at the park.
Louisa Larkin, creator of the Callan Park Dog Lovers group, said the support of sporting groups like the football club would enable dog walkers to “legitimately use Callan Park’s green open spaces and dog beach off-leash.”
Ms. Carr hopes that whatever comes of the plan, local people will be able to enjoy the park in a variety of ways, including off-leash dog walking, for many years to come.
“I would like to see a continuation of the current use of Callan Park, so dogs can be walked off leash, children can play sports, the grounds and buildings are protected and the importance of the park as a cherished community hub is maintained,” she said.