The historic wood-shingled village hall in East Hampton is not big enough for a large public meeting with the local citizenry. But down the road at the firehouse, there is a public meeting room of grand proportions where meetings can be held.
And so, on April 19, that is where the public meeting about dogs took place. The trustees sat at one end of the room behind a row of tables draped with a banner bearing the village seal. Facing them were folding chairs, where, when the time came, about 50 citizens would sit down. This would be their time to come up to the lectern and speak in favor of or against the proposed dog ordinance.
The current law about dogs prohibits them on the beach between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. during the summer. It also says people need to pick up after their dogs and be in control of them at all times. The proposed revision would require, for the first time, that dogs be leashed (with a leash not longer than six feet) for the first 500 feet from where they come onto a beach,
I had gone there to speak. I wanted to say 500 feet was too far to walk for elderly or disabled people. And I thought no law should prohibit people taking their dogs to the beach in the off-season. I did expect there would be an arms-length debate among those in favor of or opposed to the new law. I was wrong about that.
About 30 people spoke. All 30 argued against having any further restrictions made on dogs. Applause greeted the conclusion of each of the speeches. Dogs are like family to many people, one man said. He said he loved his dog like he loved his wife and kids. He was from the city, he said, and they had a house in East Hampton, and one of the things they loved doing, the dog included, was to all go down to the beach.
Two people—one a local person, the other a summer person—said they had disabilities that prevented them from walking 500 feet. The summer person said he took the matter very seriously. It was a constitutional matter. He implied he would file a lawsuit if the change were made. The local person said if the matter passed, he wouldn’t be able to walk his dog anymore.
The Mayor asked for clarity. If he couldn’t walk, how could he walk his dog in the first place? The man said he could walk a bit, he had a service dog, and he could sit there and watch his dog run happily around.
Another summer person said with these new restrictions, the village would suffer a considerable economic impact. Real estate prices would tumble. People who love dogs would find more dog-friendly places to go.
One very dignified older man strode to the lectern and said he’d been coming out to his summer home for 50 years and he wasn’t quite sure what the Mayor meant. I think you mean it would be the 500 feet from the back of the beach down to the ocean, right? It couldn’t mean 500 feet to the left or the right, could it?
The Mayor indicated yes, it could.
Oh, that can’t be right, this gentleman said. People won’t walk their dogs at all, then. He then said, Well, at least there was the off-season. This rule wouldn’t be in effect in the off-season. The Mayor again indicated yes, it would. That would be very, very wrong, the man said. Then he sat down. Everyone sat silently for a while.
One man asked the trustees if biting were a problem. The trustees looked at one another. Apparently not.
A woman spoke about how everyone diligently picks up after their dogs at the beach, and if they see someone not doing it, they say something or do it themselves. She also said that when she walks along the beach, she picks up the trash she finds. There is lots of trash. “Other dog-walkers pick up trash, too,” she said. “Who will do it, particularly in the off-season when there is no one there but us?”
“In the off-season,” another man said, “if the only people down there are us, and some fishermen or surfers, who are you protecting?”
At this point, it seemed that with the absence of anybody in favor of this new modification, I was not at an official village meeting at all, but a meeting of a group of angry dog owners who had dragged the Mayor and Trustees in and forced them to listen. “We have plenty of laws,” a man said. “I read a comment by Chief Larsen in The Star that he didn’t have enough officers to police the beaches. If he can’t police the laws we have now, how do you expect he’ll be able to police even more laws?” People snickered. There should be no laughing or clapping, the Mayor said. This was a serious board meeting.
I then spoke. I said studies show that children raised where there are dogs in the family experience better health when they grow up than those who grow up in families without dogs. I also spoke of the unique bond between dogs and those who owned them.
Sarah Davison, director of the Animal Rescue Fund, spoke and said that her organization was in favor of the modification, but the distance having to walk was far too long. And it should only be in summertime. She had a board with large photos of the distance on it.
Writer Steven Gaines said if you pass this, it will be reported by the Associated Press. The town would be held up to national ridicule.
The Mayor then asked the Village Attorney, who was among the officials at the table, if the proposed ordinance could be modified. Could they take out the part about this being in effect in the off-season?
She said that part wasn’t very well written. You could just remove where it said “at all other times.” The Mayor then asked, if they made that change, would it be necessary to have the proposed ordinance re-published? Would there have to be more hearings? No, she said, removing something would just cause a six-day delay. It could still be passed quickly.
This had a chilling effect on those who came to speak. It seemed now the Trustees had already made up their minds. “Was that true?” one of the attendees asked. “Are you voting on this today?” The Mayor said they didn’t have to, but he didn’t rule out that they might.
Delay this vote, one person said. You can always pass it in the fall.
Another speaker asked, Well, who is behind this? The implication was that there was some very rich man who would make a great donation to the village if this were passed. “If 100 people didn’t want this, and 20 people did, would you do it?” he said. “Isn’t this a democracy?”
When no further person asked to speak, the Mayor thanked everybody for coming and having their say. He said they would continue on with their regular agenda and then decide how to proceed about the dog ordinance changes. He then said this part of the meeting was over, and so most of the people, including me, left.
The next day, “Newsday” headlined EAST HAMPTON VILLAGE REINS IN PROPOSED LEASH LAW. The Board had decided to reconsider. Nothing would be done, at least until July 4th.
READ MORE STORIES BY DAN RATTINER