SCARBOROUGH – A threatened bird species, a federal fine and an eroded beach will all be at issue when the Scarborough Town Council meets Wednesday.
The council might decide whether to continue allowing residents’ dogs to romp freely in the sand on summer mornings — the town has 2,300 canines — or to better protect the small number of piping plovers that inhabit local beaches during those months. An unleashed dog killed one of the birds on a Scarborough beach this summer.
Along with the lives of the plovers, a project to restore an eroded Scarborough beach would be on the line if the council chooses not to ban unleashed dogs from its beaches during the birds’ nesting season. A $12,000 fine also could be imposed by the federal government.
The debate about dogs on beaches is not new to southern Maine coastal communities.
On the side of canine rights are dog owners — large and vocal groups that have proven in other coastal towns that they have political clout. Many of them say the unfortunate death of one bird isn’t reason enough for all of their dogs to lose the opportunity to swim and socialize in the summer.
Issues ranging from tourism to sanitation have long sparked arguments about dog access to Maine’s beaches. Voters and local elected officials have come down on either side and in between, leaving a patchwork of regulations along the coastline.
Dogs are never allowed on beaches in state parks.
In South Portland, a well-funded campaign that included door-to-door canvassing and a person dressing up in a dog costume succeeded in getting a proposed summertime dog ban on Willard Beach rejected in 2009. Dogs are allowed off-leash there in the mornings and evenings from May through September and at all times the rest of the year.
In 2006, dog owners in York weren’t able to defeat a proposal to ban the animals from beaches during the day and require leashes after 6 p.m. in the summer.
In other southern Maine beach towns, laws range from Ogunquit’s all-out dog ban from April through September to a daytime leash requirement during the summer in Saco.
Bruce Clough, who was the spokesman for a group of York dog owners when the issue came up in that town, said a lot of them don’t have yards big enough for their dogs to run.
“The beach is an ideal spot for that,” he said.
It’s also a social time for the owners and the dogs, which tend to be better-mannered if they learn to interact with other dogs, Clough said.
Under the current Scarborough ordinance, from June 15 to Sept. 15, dogs are allowed off-leash on beaches from sunrise to 9 a.m., on-leash after 5 p.m., and are banned between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. There are no restrictions for the rest of the year.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has warned the town four times since 2001 that its ordinance doesn’t adequately protect the nests of piping plovers, a federally threatened species, on Scarborough beaches. The agency was reviewing the town’s leash ordinance again in July, in order to advise the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about a dredging project, when one morning an unleashed dog chased and killed a piping plover chick on Pine Point Beach. It was the second time that had happened there in 10 years.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service investigated the incident and notified Scarborough officials last week that it would seek to impose on the town a $12,000 fine, the maximum penalty for the violation.
At its meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday, the council will consider two key changes in the ordinance: requiring dogs to be on leashes before 9 a.m., and activating the daytime ban and the on-leash restrictions starting April 1 instead of June 15.
Town Manager Tom Hall has said he hopes enacting a summertime ban on unleashed dogs could help in the negotiation of a settlement with the federal agency.
“It’s obviously a positive step that could be taken and something we’d consider,” said Terri Edwards, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Hall also hopes the council doesn’t delay its decision, for fear of putting at risk even more money — the $3.5 million in federal funding that would pay for the Scarborough River to be dredged and for the sand to be transported to Western Beach, which has severely eroded.
Hall said the Army Corps of Engineers has put the project out to bid and will need to award a contract by the end of the month to get it done this year. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, a consultant for the Army Corps, hasn’t signed off on the project because of the lax leash ordinance.
Hall fears that, if the ordinance is not tightened, the Army Corps will hold off on the contract and the federal money could be reassigned.
“This money came to us very quickly and could leave very quickly,” he said.
So far, the council has supported a stricter leash ordinance, despite opposition from dog owners at their meetings. When the council holds a public hearing and votes on the issue Wednesday, it will be the first time it has met since the town was notified of the fine.
“That’s the 10,000-pound gorilla staring at us,” Hall said.
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: