The first snowfall of the season didn’t deter Katy Foley from stepping into a dog suit and standing outside the Scarborough Municipal Building during the morning commute Tuesday.
“That makes it even better because the cars have to drive slow,” said Foley, who stood with other dog owners holding signs encouraging residents to vote next Tuesday to overturn ordinance amendments that prohibit unleashed dogs on public property in town.
Since the day after the Scarborough Town Council adopted the amendments in October, a group of dog owners, led by Foley, has been working to overturn the rules. They are meant to better protect piping plovers, like the one killed by an unleashed dog on Pine Point Beach in July. The birds are classified as a threatened species by the federal government and considered endangered by the state.
That July incident was the impetus for the ordinance changes, which have sparked a heated debate between dog owners and environmentalists in recent months.
Facing a $12,000 federal fine for the plover’s death, the Town Council enacted a year-round townwide ban on unleashed dogs on public property. Those regulations far exceeded the wishes of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which agreed to drop the fine to $500 in exchange for a leash requirement on beaches during the late spring and summer.
THE COUNCIL’S INTENTION
The council’s intention with the far-reaching regulations was to go back and designate certain areas of town, including beaches, where dogs could be allowed off-leash, said Chairman Richard Sullivan. “We’re not going to leave the dog owners of Scarborough out in the cold,” he said.
Foley said there’s been no formal proposal to create those designated areas, so her group, a political action committee called Dog Owners of Greater Scarborough, formed and filed a petition to take the issue to a vote of the citizens.
For the past few weeks, the dog owners group has been posting yard signs, sending post cards and placing phone calls to residents, asking them to vote “no.”
At least 2,379 ballots need to be cast – 25 percent of the total number of votes in the last gubernatorial election – for the referendum to count. That also happens to be right around the number of registered dogs in town.
“If we get that many people to vote, I think we will be successful,” Foley said.
If so, the regulations would revert back to what they were before: a daytime ban and evening leash requirement for dogs on Scarborough beaches during the summer.
MAINE AUDUBON’S VIEW
Although there isn’t an organized campaign in support of the new rules, Maine Audubon has spoken in favor of a stricter leash law and made its position on the referendum question clear.
“Any law that puts wildlife first and protects wildlife, we’re going to support,” said spokeswoman Michelle Smith.
Dogs were previously allowed off-leash on beaches in the morning during the summer and at all times for the rest of the year. That made Scarborough’s leash law one of the least restrictive among the state’s coastal towns, according to Maine Audubon. It also prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to issue repeated warnings to the town about the danger that the lack of restrictions posed to piping plovers, a species of migratory bird that nests on Maine’s shores in the late spring and summer.
In addition to the plover chick’s death, there is evidence of low plover productivity and abandoned nests on Scarborough beaches, said Laura Minisch Zitske, a wildlife ecologist for Maine Audubon.
“We know that they’re there and they’re harassing birds,” she said about dogs.
And then there’s the issue of the fine. If the old law is put back in place, the Fish and Wildlife Service could levy the full $12,000.
The Town Council has scheduled a workshop for Wednesday, the day after vote, to discuss what next steps to take, depending on the outcome of the election, said Sullivan, the council chairman.
If the new rules are overturned, that could mean restarting talks with the Fish and Wildlife Service, he said. If it goes the other way, he said, the council will start talking about designated areas of town where dogs can be off-leash.
Sullivan said the town already has nearly 780 acres of parks, fields and woods where unleashed dogs have been allowed.
“They’re already being used as dog parks,” he said. “They’re ready to go, pretty much.”
Foley disagreed, saying to turn them into actual dog parks would cost a lot of money – for fences, fresh water, trash cans, parking and other amenities.
Regardless of what happens, Foley said, there’s going to be more to hash out.
“Even if we’re successful, it probably doesn’t mean anything is over,” she said.
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: