Dog owners may be in for a treat if a rule change allowing their canine companions to roam county parks without a leash wins approval from the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors next month.

At its meeting on March 1, the board will consider an amendment to Santa Barbara County Code Section 26-49, which currently requires dogs to be on a leash while in county recreation areas. The amendment would make permanent the current Dog Off-Leash Pilot Program, which has been undergoing a yearlong trial. The Santa Barbara County Park Commission will recommend the change only after the one-year period passes without registering any complaints from county residents.

“We got lots of e-mails and support from both dog owners and non-dog owners,” 3rd District Commissioner James Hinkling said. “People seem to agree that dogs need a place to go free.”

The board of supervisors approved the off-leash program on Aug. 19, 2003, for five Santa Barbara County sites: Sea Lookout Park in Isla Vista – also known as Dog Shit Park – Tabano Hollow, Tucker’s Grove at Kiwanis Meadow, Patterson Open Space and Toro Canyon Park Meadow.

Through the Dog Off-Leash Pilot Program, dog owners have been allowed to let their pets roam free in the parks during certain hours on specified days of the week.

As part of the program, the county installed fencing, Mutt Mitt dispensers and trashcans in the off-leash areas to encourage dog owners to clean up after their pets. Hinkling said the parks involved in the pilot program are now cleaner than they were before the study started.

“[The program] has created much more health for these parks,” Hinkling said. “People are cleaning up after their dogs.”

Harriett Phillips, 2nd District commissioner and creator of the petition to establish off-leash areas, said that, although she did not know the exact cost of implementing the program, the price tag was relatively small.

“There’s hardly any cost at all – just fencing and a couple of chairs,” Phillips said.

Rick Wheeler, deputy director of south county parks, said the only concern that arose during the pilot program was to make sure that adjacent parks did not have the same off-leash hours, in order to give busy dog owners more freedom to use the parks as their schedules permitted.

“The challenge is always finding a balance between different park users,” Wheeler said. “You always need a balance for all the groups. It’s not a dog issue, you know – it’s a people issue.”

Non-profit organizations, such as DogPAC, have already succeeded in lobbying for such programs at other parks in Santa Barbara County. In Santa Maria, Waller Park, created by the non-profit group Winners Of Off-leash Freedom (WOOF), for example, has already established a permanent dog off-leash policy.

Hinkling said the commission requested the program for south Santa Barbara County parks due to strong community interest in such a project.

“Basically, it was requested by residents to put together the program,” he said.

3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone, who will be voting on the new amendment, said he plans to approve the permanent change in Santa Barbara code. However, he said the success of the program depends on how responsible the dog owners are while their dogs are in public areas.

“I haven’t heard of any complaints,” Firestone said. “However, I would appeal to dog owners to be responsible and not hurt the dog program by letting your dogs run free if they can’t be controlled. You have to know your dog.”