While the issue of not allowing dogs on the Commons has heated up in recent years, it all goes back to the law some Ithacans call ‘Rule 157,’ named for the ordinance in the City of Ithaca Code which states that dogs are not allowed on the Commons. However, this is a law that has been on the books since the Commons was first developed in 1974.
According to City Clerk Julie Holcomb, the City of Ithaca Common Council first adopted the ordinance on May 7, 1975. One of the original motivators, Holcomb said, was that the landscaper/nursery would not honor their one-year guarantee for the health of the trees and shrubs planted on the newly constructed Commons if dogs were allowed to be on the Commons.
There have been amendments to the law in the years since, but it has still become somewhat obsolete. It’s still on the books but there are very few people who see the law as unenforceable. Ducson Nguyen, an alderperson for the Second Ward, of which the Commons is a part of, is in support of lifting the ban, even though he has said he’s more of a cat person.
“People bring dogs anyway and as far as I know, it's rarely an issue,” Nguyen said. “Police officers have come before Council to tell us how much they dislike enforcing the ban. Who wants to tell a visiting family or a Commons resident they can't pass through the heart of downtown with a dog? That said, while the ban is in effect, it should be enforced. That includes local business dogs popular on Instagram.”
Throughout the last four years, close to 200 incidents of someone having a dog on the Commons have been reported to IPD. However, there have only been six tickets given out, with three of them belonging to Riley, the notorious dog of the Commons who’s usually found outside the Outdoor Store. Many residents have cited Ithaca Police’s shortage of officers as a primary reason for the law going unchecked. Sergeant Loretta Tomberelli spoke to how this happens.
“This level of a violation for a dog on the Commons is similar to a traffic infraction and sometimes officers will choose to educate a motorist and release them on a warning instead of issuing them a ticket,” Tomberelli said. “I see this as a similar situation. Educating Commons patrons about dogs not being allowed on the Commons is an effective way of engaging the community and fostering positive interactions with the police.”
The issue of having dogs on the Commons has had some gray areas such as the two pet-based businesses owned by Jay Sciarabba, the owner of Trader K’s. In the early 2000s, Sciarabba owned Paws, a pet accessory store, which was open from 2002-2004/2005 and Doggie Style, a dog grooming business, from 2003-2005. People were allowed to bring their dogs on the Commons as a special exception by bringing their dogs to his store. Sciarabba feels the law could not benefit those traveling to Ithaca with dogs or other animals.
“My fight the whole time is that you have people coming in from out of town, traveling hundreds of miles with their pets, and the pet industry is huge, they’re more like their kids,” Sciarabba said. “And, you’re going to keep them in a hot car while you shop on the Commons. They’re just going to turn around and leave. The people that shop and spend their money on the Commons are people that care about their pets and take care of them. Sure, there’s going to be one bad apple here and there. But most of the time, 99 percent of people who came into my stores always took care of their pets and asked for bags and had waste bags ready.”
Sciarabba said the law should be changed since he feels the other laws go just as unenforced as the dogs on the Commons law. However, it’s those bad apples he mentioned that keep this issue really tied up. Director of Operations for the Downtown Ithaca Alliance Kris Lewis said the cleaning crews on the Commons usually encounter dog urine or feces about once a month. Seph Murtagh, the other alderperson for Ithaca’s Second Ward, sides with the people who want to keep the law in place, though, he can see why the law might not be maintainable.
“I love dogs, I own a dog myself, and I understand the appeal of taking your pet with you when you're visiting places,” Murtagh said, who voted against allowing them. “Anyone who visits the Commons right now will see that the Commons rules are not being enforced. I don't think this is a sustainable path. Either we should enforce the rules that are already on the books, or we should change the rules.”