October 14, 2013

Scarborough council to decide if new leash law ‘went too far’

Critics say the public got little chance to comment before the rules for town property passed.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

SCARBOROUGH — The Town Council will reconsider a controversial year-round, townwide leash law that was approved earlier this month after a dog killed a federally protected piping plover in July.

Cynthia Knight walks her dog Monday on Ferry Beach in Scarborough. Unleashed dogs on public beaches would be banned year-round under a law recently passed by the Town Council.

Gordon Chibroski/ Staff Photographer

Chairman Ronald Ahlquist has requested a reconsideration vote for Wednesday’s council meeting, while a group of citizens is circulating a petition calling for a referendum to overturn the law.

On Oct. 2, councilors proposed and approved an ordinance change that requires dogs to be leashed any time they’re on town property, including parks, streets and sidewalks. The new law went well beyond a proposed consent agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that applied only to beaches in the summer.

“I think we went too far in all the confusion,” Ahlquist said Monday. “There should be places that dogs can go off leash. It doesn’t make sense to require leashes everywhere. We’ve done enough to dog owners already.”

The council’s action could affect the ongoing petition effort.

Citizens began circulating the referendum petition on Oct. 3 and must submit at least 2,379 valid voter signatures – 25 percent of Scarborough voters who cast ballots in the last gubernatorial election – by Oct. 22. A referendum would be held in early December, said Town Manager Tom Hall.

Town officials have delayed enforcing the new animal control ordinance until the referendum petition process runs its course. Under the previous ordinance, dogs were banned from beaches from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from June 15 through Sept. 15. During the same period, unleashed dogs were allowed on beaches from sunrise to 9 a.m., while only leashed dogs were allowed on beaches from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m.

Katy Foley, a dog owner who started the petition, said she and about 100 volunteers are well on their way to collecting more than 3,000 signatures.

“We feel very good about our numbers,” Foley said Monday while collecting signatures at the Citgo station at routes 1 and 114.

“We’ve had an overwhelming response,” she said. “People are talking about how we fix this for good.”

Foley said she has heard from some townspeople who have had negative experiences with unleashed dogs, but many more who are upset that the council approved a year-round, townwide leash law without giving advanced notice or taking public comment.

“We want all voices to be heard on this issue,” Foley said.

The council voted 5-2 on Oct. 2 to approve a consent agreement that settled a dispute with the federal government after an unleashed dog killed a piping plover chick on Pine Point Beach. The settlement saved the town from paying a $12,000 fine to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Instead, the town must pay a $500 fine, develop public education and municipal staff training programs about plovers, and create and fund the position of a part-time piping plover coordinator for at least five years starting next spring. The coordinator will work 20 hours a week, from April 1 through Aug. 31, to monitor the plover population and dog activity and to recruit and coordinate volunteer observers.

Before approving the consent agreement, the council went a step further and voted 4-3 for an amendment to create the year-round, townwide leash law. The amendment was proposed by Councilor Richard Sullivan and presented by Councilor Katherine St. Clair. Ahlquist opposed the amendment but approved the overall consent agreement, which is why he can call for a reconsideration vote, he said.

Under the new law, dogs would be allowed to run unleashed only in designated public areas, such as dog parks. However, the town has no dog parks, and many people rely on beaches for recreation with their pets.

St. Clair said she has received about a dozen “bullying” emails from townspeople who are angry about the townwide leash law. She said she regrets proposing the new law on the same night that the council considered the consent agreement, but the possibility of a townwide leash law had been discussed at other meetings.

“We’ve been dealing with this issue for months,” St. Clair said. “I still believe (the townwide leash law) is the right thing to do. The council represents all of Scarborough, not one segment of Scarborough.”

St. Clair said she has received several emails from townspeople who support the new leash law and have shared frightening stories about being bitten, attacked or jumped on by unleashed dogs. She said she’s unsure whether she’ll support a reconsideration vote, but she’d like to address the dog owners’ concerns, possibly by designating certain public areas where unleashed dogs would be allowed to run free.

“I feel bad because a majority of the people fighting this law are responsible dog owners,” St. Clair said. “I hope the outcome is good, but we’re not going to make everybody happy.”

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:kbouchard@pressherald.comTwitter: @KelleyBouchard

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