A large no-trespassing sign was posted by the state last week on one of Scarborough’s most popular sand beaches, making about three acres of Higgins Beach off-limits to people and their dogs through the remaining months of the piping plover nesting season.

Erected on Thursday, the sign, which is attached to two metal beams, warns trespassers that the area — a sandy point of beach adjacent to the Spurwink River — is owned by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and that the property is an endangered species nesting area. The protected area has also been staked and roped off.

Some Scarborough residents, already sensitive to the incident last year when a dog mauled a piping plover chick on Pine Point Beach, expressed concern that the sign might be the first step toward further restricting public access to Scarborough’s beaches.

State wildlife officials say that area on Higgins Beach has been roped off and staked since the 1980s to protect nesting piping plovers and that a sign declaring the area off-limits should not come as a surprise.

“I think more people are sensitive due to the issues the town has had with dog owners,” said Judy Camuso, director of DIF&W’s Wildlife Division.

Camuso said the sign is also a way to educate the public about the piping plover’s fragile nesting habitat. “We felt it was more visually appealing,” she added.

In the past, plovers on Higgins Beach have successfully reproduced, though last year the two breeding pairs were not successful, Camuso said.

Camuso said the area next to the river will remain off-limits to humans and dogs for about five months. The birds usually arrive in early April and stay until September, when they migrate south.

“Yes, indeed, the eastern end of Higgins Beach is now officially closed. Not just to off-leash dogs. Not just to leashed dogs. But, to us good ol’ human beings as well,” wrote Steve Hanley in his blog “ScarboroughBeachesAlert.” Hanley posted a photograph of the sign on his well known local website.

Hanley describes himself as a Scarborough resident who enjoys exercising his dog responsibly on the town’s beaches.

“The signage was startling,” Hanley said Monday night. “It’s very much a warning to stay away — everybody.”

Hanley views the sign as part of a “progression” by wildlife officials toward restricting public access to town beaches.

Suzanne Foley-Ferguson, a former town councilor who is also a member of an organization called Dog Owners of Greater Scarborough, said she is sympathetic toward the plight of the plovers but worries that federal and state wildlife officials may be taking the bird’s protection to the extreme.

“What I am concerned about is that this (no trespassing sign) is just step one toward closing all of Scarborough’s beaches,” she said.

Town Manager Tom Hall said residents and dog owners will be given an opportunity to debate the issue at an April 16 public hearing on proposed rules that would create protected areas on parts of Higgins, Ferry, Western and Pine Point beaches. The hearing will be followed on May 7 by a Town Council decision.

Last December, by a vote of 2,880 to 1,059, residents decided to keep the town’s existing restrictions, which ban dogs from beaches from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. between June 15 and Sept. 15. During that same period, unleashed dogs are allowed on beaches from sunrise to 9 a.m. Only leashed dogs are allowed on beaches from 5 p.m. to sunrise.

The referendum vote overturned a Town Council decision to approve a year-round community leash law, which would have allowed dogs to run unleashed only in designated public areas such as dog parks. The town has no dog parks.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:[email protected]