ITHACA, N.Y. – In Burlington, Vermont, shopkeepers set out water bowls along the pedestrian-only section of Church Street. In Charlottesville, Virginia, downtown restaurants host doggy dining specials. In Ithaca, canines enter the Commons at their own risk, with a prohibition on pets on the books since the 1970s.
According to the city’s Public Safety and Information Commission, Ithaca is out of step with peer cities when it comes to dog-friendliness. Common Council last voted to uphold a ban on dogs on the Commons in 2015 and is not planning to reconsider it in the immediate future. However, they have tasked the Public Safety and Information Commission, an unelected body of volunteers, with looking into alternative policies. At their Monday, April 1 meeting, commissioners expressed ambivalence.
Aryeal Jackson, who chairs the commission, said as far as she knows Ithaca is the only small city to ban dogs on its downtown pedestrian mall other than Boulder, Colorado. The culture around pets has changed, Jackson said, noting that many local hotels allow dogs and tourists often choose to travel to Ithaca with their pets.
Nevertheless, she and other commissioners acknowledged the concerns about safety, cleanliness and nuisances that led Common Council to uphold the ban in 2015. Citing the costly renovation of the Commons, they said the city would have to spend money on cleaning and maintenance to prevent dog waste from degrading planters and paving stones.
JoAnn Cornish, director of planning and development, said during a presentation to the commission this week that dogs on the Commons have been debated for as long as she’s been in the city.
“I think it’s worth considering having one place in the City of Ithaca where dogs aren’t allowed,” Cornish said, but she added, “I could be persuaded the other way too.”
Cornish said she’s a dog lover who takes her dogs everywhere she can, but also pointed out that the Commons was not designed to accommodate dogs. There are no waste clean up stations or green patches for dogs to use, and to protect the paving surface she said a person would need to hose down dog urine nightly.
Of course, dogs are already on the Commons in violation of city code. Cornish said landscapers have repeatedly raised issues about dog waste in flower beds, and all commissioners agreed enforcement of the existing ban is minimal.
The Ithaca Police Department received 112 dog-related complaints between January 2018 and February 2019 in the City of Ithaca, 13 of which were reported on the Ithaca Commons. Eleven of those complaints referred to off-leash or unattended dogs on the Commons and the two other complaints were related to leaving dogs in cars.
Commissioner Mike Comella said his takeaway from speaking with officials in Burlington about dog regulations during his research was that Ithaca should relax.
“I think we need to relax a little bit about the cleanliness,” he said, “sidewalks are dirty.” He said he looked into regulations in Alexandria, Virginia, and found that store owners typically clean the sidewalk when dog owners are negligent.
Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, said he polled business owners along the Commons a few months ago and found a majority are welcoming to pups. He said the ban doesn’t create a big problem for tourists because of lax enforcement, but can be frustrating.
“Most visitors have no knowledge of dogs not being allowed, so typically visitors don’t have a problem,” he said, but he added, “if they bring their dog and someone says something, that’s uncomfortable.”
Ferguson said the DIA does not have a formal position on the city rule but is eager for clarity either way.
Jackson said whether the city continues to prohibit dogs or not, changes will need to be made to ensure public awareness and compliance with regulations. “We’re going to have to spend money to make signage better and to be more consistent in enforcement,” she said, “or to make sure spaces are clean.”
With more people and dogs set to move onto the Commons as new apartment buildings open, the issue is only getting more pressing. Any changes, though, are still a long way off. In December the City Administration Committee asked the commission to recommend changes to the dog policy, but Jackson said Monday that the commission only plans to pass along research. They are due to send deliverables to the committee by September, so for the summer, Ithaca’s downtown dogs will remain outlaws.