Updated 1/17/12 1:15 p.m.

Just days after Riverside police announced they would begin to crack down on dog owners who allow their pets to run at large in village parks, an official from the Cook County Forest Preserve District confirmed they are looking at the Riverside area as a potential site for a new dog-friendly park.

On Jan. 10, Police Chief Thomas Weitzel announced that if police are called to respond to a park because there are dogs running free, police will ticket their owners without warning them first.

According to village code, offenders will receive $35 tickets. Officers will also check to make sure dog licenses and rabies vaccination tags are up to date as well if they ticket a dog owner.

“Most residents are very cooperative,” said Weitzel of the past practice of warning dog owners to leash their dogs. But the warnings haven’t solved the problem. “The problem is they continue to come back. We’re not telling them they have to leave the park. We’re asking them to keep their dogs on a leash.”

On Jan. 13, Chris Slattery, director of planning and development for the Cook County Forest Preserve District, told the Landmark the agency is looking at forest preserve sites in Riverside for a new “off-leash dog grove.”

“Riverside is the primary focus right now,” said Slattery. “It’s the group that has been most interested.”

That interest can be traced back to a meeting Village President Michael Gorman and Village Manager Peter Scalera had last fall with Slattery and forest preserve district General Superintendent Arnold Randall.

At the time, Riverside’s Parks and Recreation Commission had completed a resident survey to gauge interest in creating a dog park within Riverside. The commission has held off on releasing the results of that survey after the forest preserve district showed potential interest in Riverside as a new dog park location.

The forest preserve district operates just one dog park in its entire system, Beck Lake Dog Park in Des Plaines, a 30-acre facility that has proven to be very popular with dog owners, Slattery said.

In its five-year capital improvement plan, the forest preserve district “used new guiding principles to include trying to engage new forest preserve users,” said Slattery. “We’re budgeting money to do a recreation master plan in 2012 and money for one or two off-leash dog groves in 2012.”

The forest preserve district is also targeting the south suburbs for a dog-friendly park, said Slattery.

According to Gorman, when he met with forest preserve officials, the Riverside area wasn’t on the list.

“I said that we are ringed by forest preserves,” Gorman said. “They said they were looking at expanding [dog parks in the system], but that the western suburbs weren’t on their radar. And they said, ‘Now we’ll consider you.'”

Gorman said his intention wasn’t to stand in the way of a dog park within the village itself, but to provide as many options as possible.

A forest preserve dog park now appears to be a very real option. Slattery told the Landmark on Friday that the forest preserve district is considering a list of potential local sites, which have to be vetted to make sure there aren’t competing uses or the potential to harm natural resources.

“We continue to narrow the list of sites, so we can get feedback on potential sites,” Slattery said.

According to Slattery, the process for obtaining that feedback could begin this spring.

Dog owners have congregated in the larger Riverside parks for years, letting their dogs cavort unleashed, while the owners socialize. Typically, the gatherings happen on the weekends in places like Swan Pond Park, Big Ball Park and, more recently, Indian Gardens. As many as a dozen dogs at a time can be seen running at large, said Weitzel.

But such a convergence of dogs running at large has spurred complaints from people walking their dogs on leashes and pedestrians who are afraid of the dogs. While most dog owners feel their pets are friendly and well-behaved, the pedestrians have no idea what to expect if a dog suddenly charges their way.

“The dog may be friendly, but people are intimidated or afraid of that,” said Weitzel, who added that the crackdown comes in the wake of seven formal complaints about a group of dogs running at large in parks since Jan. 1. There have been other informal complaints as well, Weitzel said.

While many dog owners won’t be happy with the crackdown, Riverside has had a leash law on its books since 1965. The law states that “no person owning or keeping a dog shall allow such dog to be at large in the village or any public street, park or other public property, or on private premises other than those of the owner or keeper of such dog.”

In addition, the law says that no dog – leashed or not – “shall be permitted in the area of any public park set aside for the playing of tennis, baseball or other game, or for use as a tot lot.”

The crackdown comes amid an effort by the Riverside Parks and Recreation Commission to determine whether or not it’s possible to create a dog park within the village.

“We know dogs need to run,” said Susan Casey, chairwoman of the Riverside Parks and Recreation Commission. “We want to offer a place for that. We want to offer an outlet.”

But, Casey said she supports the police crackdown, saying that many incidents of unleashed dogs intimidating pedestrians or dog owners not cleaning up after their dogs aren’t reported to police.

“There are many people who have come up to me. Every other day I hear about the excrement issue or from people who are intimidated from going to the tot lot with dogs there. And they’re afraid to tell people to leash their dogs because of the response,” Casey said.

“If people don’t feel comfortable going into our parks, it’s not right. I don’t think a lot of dog owners really know how many people in the village feel intimidated.”

The commission at its next meeting is expected to finalize the wording of new signs reminding people of the village’s laws regarding dogs in parks. Casey said she hoped the signs could be in place by April 1.

She especially wants to see dogs kept out of tennis courts, ball fields and tot lots, per village statute.

“The tot lots are really important, because those are the most vulnerable residents,” said Casey.