Brookhaven Park at the corner of Peachtree Road and Osborne Road with its acres of grassy fields has, over the years, become a de facto off-leash dog park for residents and dog owners living throughout metro Atlanta.

But that could be about to change as city officials continue to hear complaints from residents upset about dogs running loose in a park they want to visit for a peaceful stroll or to have a picnic lunch. The City Council is expected at its July 24 work session to take up the issue that has been burning almost since day one of incorporation nearly six years ago and after the city took over ownership of the park from DeKalb County.

A group of dogs run loose at Brookhaven Park on a recent Saturday morning. The park has become a de facto dog park for metro Atlanta because dogs are allowed to run off-leash. (Dyana Bagby)

“This has been going on since the inception of the city,” Councilmember Bates Mattison, whose district includes Brookhaven Park, said in an interview.

“I knew about it 20 years ago and then it was already the place for a huge off-leash dog community.”

Mattison is proposing certain hours in the morning and evening be set aside for off-leash dog use to allow for times for parents to take small children to the park when there are no dogs running loose. He is trying to get consensus from council to support this idea.

“There has to be a compromise,” Mattison said. “Off-leash hours is where I’d like to see us end up.”

Over the years the city has not enforced the city’s leash law, though signs in the park note that dogs “must be under the control of their owners at all times, either on a leash or at heel at their owner’s side.”

Concerns about the city banning off-leash dog use or fencing off an area for dogs at the park has mobilized a sizable dog community who have garnered more than 2,200 signatures seeking to keep the park the same as it is after Councilmember John Park said they needed to demonstrate there was a strong interest.

A sign explains the city’s leash law. (Dyana Bagby)

They are also speaking out at City Council meetings and organized a Facebook group called “Keep Brookhaven Park Dog Friendly!” with some 450 members where people share information as well as numerous photos of their dogs enjoying the park.

Laurie Nickless of Brookhaven, one of the organizers of the Facebook group, said she understands there is history on both sides of the on-leash, off-leash debate. But she and others want to be included in the conversation before the City Council makes a final decision.

“Our objective is we want a seat at the table,” she said.

She said she and others do support off-leash hours rather than a fenced-off area.

On a recent Saturday morning at Brookhaven Park, several dog owners spoke out against fencing in dogs because doing so can create anxiety in dogs.

“I come every day to the park and I don’t like the idea of an enclosed area. It’s not good for the dogs,” said Monica Ho, who lives on Osborne Road.

Ross Hammer of Buckhead was working a table set up near the park’s entrance, asking people to sign a petition asking the city to keep the park the same. One person doing so was Korinna Hirsch of Doraville, with her dog Boggs.

“This is his kind of space and freedom,” she said of Brookhaven Park. “People are very responsible, I’ve never seen fights, and when people come here to the park they also do their shopping in Brookhaven. I’m going to Nuts n Berries after this.”

Bringing a sense of urgency to the longstanding issue is Skyland Park, the city’s new park, which is set to open in the next few weeks. The park includes two fenced off areas for dogs to run loose. City officials have stated that once those dog parks open, it plans to allow for a 120-day education period informing the public this is the city’s new dog park and then begin issuing citations for those with off-leash dogs at Brookhaven Park.

Ross Hammer, an advocate for Brookhaven Park remaining an off-leash dog park, talks with Korinna Hirsch as she signs a petition. (Dyana Bagby)

Further delaying a solution on leash enforcement is no master plan for the park has been completed caused by, in part, confusion in the past over what part of the park Brookhaven actually owned. A master plan is nearing completion, Mattison said.

Mike Elliot, who headed the Friends of Brookhaven Park from 2008-2014, said the delay in the city settling the on-leash, off-leash debate rests at the City Council’s feet.

“There has been a lack of city will to enforce the leash law for a variety of reasons — the city doesn’t own the park, no funds for a fenced dog park, desire to satisfy dog owners, no adopted master plan,” he said. “Failure to enforce any law implies that no compliance is needed.”

He said the use of all of Brookhaven Park for off-leash dogs has “grown dramatically” since the city incorporated and a decision was made to not enforce the leash law. Police do respond to complaints. And Mattison said there has not been any safety concerns about off-leash dogs at the park.

“Since Brookhaven’s existence I don’t know of any adverse event,” he said. “In practice, there is no real safety concern or disputes.”

But Elliot said it is time for the city to step up and make the park a true community park for Brookhaven residents and not those from outside the city limits.

“Primarily due to word of mouth and social media, Brookhaven Park is recognized throughout the Atlanta metro area as the largest public area to let dogs off leash,” he said. “The city of Brookhaven’s unwillingness to enforce the leash law has created this problem.”

But Nickless said she believes a compromise can be reached.

“We want a seat at the table and help shape this park,” she said. “The majority of us are willing to accept off-leash hours.”

Dyana Bagby

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.