People whose dogs commit the most serious violations on Boulder open space likely will have their off-leash privileges determined by a municipal court judge, along with possibly more serious consequences.

The Boulder City Council late Tuesday did away with a "strikes" system that had been proposed for the green tag program that allows dogs to go off-leash on open space, with aggressive dog and failure to protect wildlife violations resulting in automatic suspensions on a first offense and two violations in two years for lesser offenses also resulting in suspension. Dogs would have then had to take a test to show they could comply with instructions in a distracting environment.

Dozens of dog owners told the council that, if those rules were passed, they would walk in fear that a single mistake or the subjective judgment of a ranger would result in a lifetime loss of privileges.

Instead, the City Council opted to leave the exact consequences for aggressive dog and wildlife violations to the discretion of municipal court judges. Owners already have to go to court on such violations.

The concept behind the "strikes" approach -- that some violations are inconsistent with allowing dogs to roam off-leash on open space -- will be written into the ordinance as guidance for city prosecutors in the sentences they seek.

"Losing a green tag is a pretty minor consequence for some of these violations," Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum said. "If you have an aggressive dog, it shouldn't be out there on a leash either."

However, the consequences for an aggressive dog violation could be more serious depending on the circumstances, including mandatory training or even euthanasia for serious attacks.

Councilman Andrew Shoemaker said he had serious concerns about the reinstatement test developed by Open Space and Mountain Parks for dogs whose licenses were suspended. He said leaving penalties -- including requiring training through an existing program -- to a judge would maintain strict consequences for serious offenses while reassuring dog owners they won't be unduly punished for less serious violations.

The Boulder City Council did not vote on the proposal Tuesday. Instead, they continued the second reading of the ordinance so that the changes could be written into the ordinance and voted on later this month or early next month. Because of the changes, the ordinance will require a third vote as well.

The changes also require green-tag holders -- there may be more than 30,000 of them -- to re-apply for their license and take an in-person class and renew that license annually.

Dallas Larson, left, and his wife, Pat Larson, stop to take a photograph while walking their son’s dog "Quigley" on Tuesday on the
Dallas Larson, left, and his wife, Pat Larson, stop to take a photograph while walking their son's dog "Quigley" on Tuesday on the Chautauqua Trail in Boulder. (Jeremy Papasso / Daily Camera)

Now, green tag holders just have to watch a video on the program's requirements that dogs be under voice and sight control of their owners, and there is no renewal requirement.

The proposal also changes the fee structure to favor Boulder residents, lowering the fee for city residents from $15 to $13 but raising the fee for non-city residents from $18.75 to $33 for Boulder County residents and $75 for out-of-county residents. The renewal fee would be $5 for city residents, $20 for county residents and $30 for out-of-county residents.

It also raises fines for violations to $100 for a first offense, up from $50.

The City Council members largely supported those changes.

During a two-hour public hearing, many dog owners, or guardians, as many prefer to be called, said the existing rules are adequate, and the city needs more open space rangers enforcing rules on the small number of violators, not new requirements.

They were especially concerned about the possibility of losing green-tag privileges for what they see as normal dog behavior.

Melinda Kassen said the violations that have the strictest punishments are very subjective.

"My dog is a herding dog," she said. "She plays by chasing. That's what she's doing. Someone might think she's aggressive."

Eileen Monyok said people can bother wildlife as well, but they don't lose their open space privileges.

"Getting too close to get the perfect picture," she said. "Trying to sneak up on them. I've seen people coming down from the Mallory Cave bat closures. People aren't losing privileges. I'm against unequal punishments for the same offense."

Open space officials noted that none of the behavior expectations is changing, and dogs that lose green tag privileges can still walk on open space, just on a leash.

Monyok said that was like telling a climber who got a ticket that he or she could still climb, but only in galoshes.

Valerie Yates said knowing her dogs could lose their green tags would be "anxiety-inducing and unnecessarily punitive."

"My two dogs don't chase wildlife and don't jump on people, but their active, playful behavior would certainly get them a ticket if witnessed by a ranger," she said.

But Barbara Loren said many dog owners don't understand what it means to have their dogs under voice and sight control. One of her three dogs died after a "friendly lab" jumped on it and broke its back. The owner of the lab had to pull her playful dog off the other dog, but the damage was done.

She said many dog owners would benefit from a class.

"If you don't have time to go to the class, you probably don't have the time to train your dog to the extent you need to to go on open space," Loren said.

Raymond Bridge said he heard many dog owners refer dismissively to dogs chasing wildlife as "only chasing squirrels," but that behavior has an impact.

As a volunteer naturalist, he used to be able to easily show children the relationship between the Abert's squirrel and the ponderosa pine. Now, he can explain it but not show children actual squirrels.

"Those kids regularly pay the price for people who think dogs chasing squirrels are under voice and sight control," he said.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Erica Meltzer at 303-473-1355 or meltzere@dailycamera.com.