Monday, March 27, 2023

Fenceless dog parks are coming to James City County. Here’s what you need to know about it

(WYDaily file photo/Courtesy of Pixabay)
(WYDaily file photo/Courtesy of Pixabay)

Starting in May, owners who enjoy exercising their dogs off-leash will now have several new public venues to choose from.

On March 12, the James City County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to amend county code to allow for dogs to run off-leash in some areas of public county parks.

The change does not remove the county-wide leash law, but it does open up off-leash opportunities for dogs to run and play to their heart’s content.

The off-leash areas will be at Upper County Park, Chickahominy Riverfront Park, Freedom Park, Jamestown Beach Event Park and Veterans Park and marked off by small sections of fence at each corner.

The areas will be open to dogs from May to October this year as a trial run.

At the March 12 meeting, Parks and Recreation Director John Carnifax said other localities such as Chesapeake have found success with fenceless, off-leash areas.

“Dog parks are a high priority now… They’re very popular,” Carnifax said. “It’s worth us trying.”

At the board meeting, Carnifax said the fenceless dog parks are designed to fill a need for more canine recreation space in the county.

Guidelines for public dog parks suggest the county’s 16,000 dogs should have access to two public dog parks, Carnifax said.

The county shares Waller Mill dog park with the City of Williamsburg through a 2005 agreement.

What’s the law?

At the March 12 meeting, two women who live in Colonial Heritage spoke during the public comment period about loose dogs running in the neighborhood and attacking people and small dogs.

A court hearing for one of the attacks — which killed a dog — happened Friday morning in the Williamsburg-James City County General District Court.

In response, some supervisors worried having off-leash areas without fences could be risky, but agreed to trust Carnifax’s best judgement.

Signage onsite at the off-leash areas includes a warning to dog handlers notifying them they are responsible for any injuries or damage caused by the dog.

So, what’s the law regarding dangerous dogs?

A dog that has bitten, attacked, injured or killed a companion animal is considered a “dangerous dog” by law.

In contrast, the dog is not considered dangerous if law enforcement or animal control and a veterinarian finds no serious injury was inflicted, both animals are owned by the same person, or the attack occurred on the property of the attacking or biting dog’s owner.

A dog is also considered dangerous if it has bitten, attacked, or inflicted injury on a person, but not if that injury is a scratch, abrasion or other minor injury.

An example of signage that will be at each off-leash area in James City County this year. (WYDaily/Courtesy James City County)
An example of signage that will be at each off-leash area in James City County this year. (WYDaily/Courtesy James City County)

The dog can be seized and held “in a manner that protects the public safety” until a court hearing is held. In court, a judge will decide whether the dog is legally considered dangerous.

If the dog is determined to be dangerous, the judge can order the owner to pay restitution.

The owner is also required to obtain a dangerous dog registration certificate from the local animal control officer and put the dog on the Virginia Dangerous Dog Registry. The dog must wear a tag identifying it as a dangerous dog and be placed in a special, secure cage.

If not in a cage, it must be muzzled.


While aggressive dogs are a real public safety concern, the lifetime odds of being the victim of a deadly dog attack are one in 115,111, similar to dying from a bee sting or while flying in an airplane, according to the National Safety Council.

Comparatively, the odds of dying in a motor vehicle crash are one in 103, and choking on food in one in 2,696.

Carnifax said Parks and Recreation reserves the right to shut down the off-leash areas at any time.

“If we have issues, we can discontinue it at any time,” Carnifax said.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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