Ithaca will enforce dog rule after making altruistic vendor a scapegoat

The City of Ithaca says they’ll begin enforcing a widely ignored, and rarely enforced, “no dogs on the Ithaca Commons” rule “for everyone,” two weeks after sending a letter threatening a popular hot dog vendor.

Riley at Lou’s hot dog cart on the Ithaca Commons. 14850 file photo.

A letter from superintendent of public works Michael J. Thorne, P.E., dated July 24th, warns Lou Cassaniti, a longtime hot dog vendor on the Commons, not to “call Riley,” a dog owned by a nearby business’s owner, “over to your cart.” The letter threatens to relocate Lou’s cart “to another vending location.”

Why Lou?

“They just don’t want me here,” says Lou, who found other spots to sell his hot dogs — including for an annual fundraiser that has raised over $50,000 for the SPCA of Tompkins County over the years — while the Ithaca Commons went through a lengthy rebuild project that dragged on long past its planned end date. He came back after the protracted Commons project was done, though he was forced to buy a cart to replace the portable grill, table, and pop-up tent he’d used for years.

The SPCA is allowed to bring dogs for their annual Hot Dog Day. Lou donates thousands of dollars from the day’s proceeds each year. 14850 file photo.

One issue, Lou suspects, was a realization a few years ago that federal law says local municipal governments can’t charge military veterans for a street food vendor permit. “I’d been paying for a permit for years. I didn’t even want my money back, just an apology.” He didn’t get one.

Thorne did not respond to a request for confirmation that he or his office had sent the letter, a request that he comment on whether there had been specific complaints about Riley or Lou’s friendliness towards her, a request that he comment on whether Riley’s owner had also received a warning, or a request that he comment on what additional enforcement activity might be occurring with respect to the long-ignored rule.

Why no dogs?

Dogs aren’t allowed on the Ithaca Commons, but you wouldn’t know it from an average day in Downtown Ithaca. People stroll onto the pedestrian plaza with their dogs all the time, either not knowing or not caring about the ban.

There are exceptions — people who live or work on the Commons can get permission to walk their dog to and from their home or workplace, and Riley’s owner, who owns the Outdoor Store, has such permission. Of course, service animals are always allowed. And the SPCA gets permission each year to bring dogs to Hot Dog Day at Lou’s cart.

This May, City of Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick sparked a discussion of dredreds of comments on Facebook with the question, “Should we allow dogs on the Commons?” There were a lot of strong opinions, and a data analysis by 14850 Magazine founder and Ithaca College Professor Ari Kissiloff showed the responses that had a clear yes-or-no bent were 75% in favor and 25% against allowing dogs.

The Mayor had asked exactly the same question on Facebook a couple of years earlier, with similar results. Lots of yes, some no, and some reasoned “Sure, but with requirements like leashes and cleaning up after your dog” suggestions. That was after the Planning & Economic Development Committee had proposed some changes for the Commons, including striking the dog ban. Common Council voted on the proposal at a meeting on March 4, 2015, and decided to keep the dog ban.

The question becomes one of quality of life, we wrote at the time: Dog owners appreciate the opportunity to bring their dogs with them while out and about. Tourists visiting the area with their dogs enjoy the company on their explorations. Some residents don’t like dogs, are afraid of or allergic to them, or fear dogs will leave behind unwanted waste.

Others wonder whether the Ithaca Commons, a pedestrian mall in Downtown Ithaca that is, effectively, three city street blocks that have been closed to traffic, should be treated differently than any other city blocks — where dogs are allowed without anyone thinking twice about it.

In the meantime, the State of New York now allows dogs in outdoor dining areas at restaurants.

What’s next?

Lou says the City of Ithaca has told him they will begin evenly enforcing the Commons dog ban this coming Monday, August 7th, but if that’s true, no one has told the Ithaca Police Department. “We have not been instructed to start enforcing it yet,” IPD public information officer Jamie Williamson told us on Saturday.

Even if Riley is allowed to come to work with her person, we agree she shouldn’t roam freely on the Commons, for her safety as well as the safety and comfort of other visitors to the downtown pedestrian plaza.

But we can’t condone blatantly lopsided enforcement, and we’re disgusted by a public official using such lopsided enforcement to harass a hard-working, altruistic military veteran.

Rachel Cera contributed reporting to this article.

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