Officially, there is no such thing as a dog park in Riverside. Unofficially, there are several – Big Ball Park, Swan Pond (when it’s not under water) and the tennis courts at Blythe Park.

That disconnect will be the subject of discussion next month for the Riverside Parks and Recreation Commission, which has begun a review of village ordinances related to parks. It’s time to seriously kick around the issue of whether or not Riverside needs a designated dog park, says Susan Casey, the commission’s chairwoman.

That discussion will take place at the commission’s meeting on Monday, July 25 at 7 p.m. at the Riverside recreation offices, 10 Pine Ave.

While it may have been legal at one time for dogs to run free throughout the village (in 1897, for example, it was perfectly legal for Fido – unless Fido happened to be a female in heat – to scamper all over town between June 1 and Oct. 1 as long as it was wearing an ID tag and a muzzle). That’s not the case any longer.

According to village code, it is against the law for any dog – with or without its owner – to be in a public park or tennis court. But the law has had little effect on dog owners, who congregate in the mornings at Big Ball Park and Swan Pond for a little canine cavorting.

“We have such trouble enforcing dog leashes, and we always have,” said Casey. “The police have a lot to do. … And the opposition to a dog park will be so fierce. But some people are afraid of the dogs, and there are people who are not picking up after their dogs.”

Police Chief Thomas Weitzel said his officers will respond to any complaints of dogs running free in parks and have asked dog owners to disperse or leash their dogs if they observe dogs unleashed. His officers have issued “very few” tickets over the years and dog owners often complain when police intervene.

“When the officers tell them to leash the dogs, they’re not happy,” he said.

But he said some people are afraid to venture into the parks if there is a group of dogs running at large. While owners may say their pets are harmless, people “don’t want to take that chance,” said Weitzel.

“When there is a group of dogs running at large in a pack of eight or 10, it should not be tolerated,” Weitzel said. “When we get called, we enforce it.”

Dogs have been a particular problem at Blythe Park, where some dog owners have taken it upon themselves to turn the fenced-in tennis courts into a dog park. As a result, says Casey, the surfaces of the courts have broken down and must be replaced. It’s an expensive proposition and one that park officials are loathe to do if dog owners keep using them.

“The tennis court surface is soft,” said Casey. “The nails dig in and water gets in and breaks up the surface. It totally breaks down more quickly with the dog element. It’s also a sanitary issue. It’s been a mess.”

People have gone so far as to deface the signs at the tennis courts stating that dogs aren’t allowed, Casey said, by scratching off the words.

One solution, said Casey, is taking down the side fencing at the Blythe Park tennis courts so dog owners can’t just use the area as a corral.

“As a deterrent to dogs on tennis courts, we’re taking down the side fences on the tennis courts,” Casey said. “Only the tall fence parts, the slanted parts and one panel of the low fences will remain. No totally enclosed fences except at Indian Gardens.”

That might solve the problem at Blythe Park, but it doesn’t address the use of places like Swan Pond and Big Ball Park as meeting areas for dog owners and their pets. Some opposition to specifically designating an area as a dog park may come from the perception that Riverside simply doesn’t have the room.

However, Casey said she’d like to at least explore using the triangular piece of village-owned land immediately southwest of the downtown train station as a dog park. Other opposition will surely come from the fact that such an area would need a 5-foot fence around it and signage – not to mention a funding source for its creation and maintenance.

“It’s an idea to explore,” Casey said. “If it is considered an option, it’ll go to the village board.

“I’d rather tackle the issue, get it all out there, debated and then say, ‘This is how it is’.”

The village’s ordinance regarding dogs is just one of the issues Casey would like to explore. The commission has already kicked around the code regarding picnicking in Riverside’s parks. For the record, you can’t.

That ordinance was last examined in 1987, when the picnicking prohibition was consolidated with ones prohibiting fishing and boat launching. After researching the issue and talking with three people who were on the 1987 village board along with the village attorney at the time, Casey said it’s unlikely the prohibition against picnics is going to change.