Scarborough voters will get the final say on a controversial new law banning unleashed dogs from town property year-round.

A ballot-box repeal of the ordinance could again expose the town to a $12,000 federal fine.

Town Clerk Tody Justice on Monday verified that a petition circulated by dog owners had the 2,379 signatures needed to force a special election. Town officials said Tuesday they hope to hold the referendum in December.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in September proposed to fine the town $12,000 for effectively allowing an unleashed dog to kill a federally protected piping plover chick on Pine Point Beach in July. The agency had repeatedly warned the town that its leash law – which allowed unleashed dogs on town beaches during nesting season – needed to be tightened to protect the birds.

Officials from the town and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service negotiated a settlement, in which the federal agency agreed to reduce its fine for the death of the plover to $500 if the town banned unleashed dogs from its beaches between April and August.

On Oct. 2, the Town Council approved the settlement agreement, but also went much further by adopting a yearlong ban of unleashed dogs on all town property. Dog owners quickly began circulating a petition to force the repeal referendum.

If residents vote to overturn the ordinance, the dog law will revert to the old rules, which allow unleashed dogs on the beach from sunrise to 9 a.m. between June 15 and Sept. 15, and at all times during the rest of the year. Those are the same rules that were the basis of the proposed federal fine.

A clause in the agreement between the town and the Fish and Wildlife Service says the federal agency “may reinstate the remainder of the originally proposed civil penalty amount” if the town fails to implement the terms of the agreement, including requiring dogs to be on leashes between April and August.

Town Manager Tom Hall noted that the clause says the agency “may,” not “shall,” impose the full fine. But the possibility of the larger fine is a concern, he said.

Hall said he is not sure whether the council will be able to quickly adopt a new leash law if the current one is repealed by voters.

He said new ordinances approved by townwide referendum cannot be revisited by the council for a year.

It’s also not clear what the federal wildlife officials will do if the law is repealed.

“We left (the agreement) vague because we want to see how it plays out,” said Christine Eustis, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Eustis said the agency is trying to be reasonable with the town, but if unleashed dogs are still allowed on the beach next plover season, “we might have to do something,” she said.

Depending on how the referendum goes, Eustis said, federal officials might try to work out a new agreement with the town.

Dick LaRou, a resident, had previously offered to pay the full $12,000 fine if the town kept the old rules in place and enforced them. He said Tuesday he didn’t know whether he would still make good on that offer if the ordinance is overturned by voters and the fine is reinstated.

Katy Foley, who submitted the petition on behalf of the political action committee Dog Owners of Greater Portland, said she thinks the old rules were reasonable.

But, Foley said, “there may be some wiggle room” in the rules and she’d be willing to revisit them, as long as all of the stakeholders get a say.

“First and foremost is getting this extremely harsh and overly restrictive ordinance overturned,” she said of the law requiring dogs to be leashed at all times on beaches, at parks and on streets and sidewalks.

Although the new ordinance remains in place, town officials have said they are delaying enforcement of it.

Last week, councilors debated whether to effectively repeal the new leash law on their own.

“I think we went way too far and there was a lot of confusion there,” said Council Chairman Ronald Ahlquist, who made a motion to reconsider the ordinance.

His proposal failed in a 3-3 vote, with Katherine St. Clair, James Benedict and Edward Blaise voting against reconsideration.

Councilors Ahlquist, Judy Roy and Jessica Holbrook favored reconsideration. Richard Sullivan was absent.

 

Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

lbridgers@pressherald.com@lesliebridgers