December 4, 2013

Scarborough voters overturn hotly debated leash law

The new restrictions had come after an endangered piping plover chick was killed by a dog last summer.

By Dennis Hoey dhoey@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

SCARBOROUGH — Unleashed dogs will be allowed on public lands, including beaches, after residents voted by an overwhelming margin Tuesday to overturn controversial restrictions imposed by the Town Council in response to the killing of a piping plover chick by a dog at a local beach last summer.

click image to enlarge

Elvis and Jakey frolic in the surf at Pine Point in Scarborough on Saturday, July 27, 2013. Unleashed dogs will be allowed on public lands, including beaches, after residents voted by an overwhelming margin Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2013 to overturn controversial restrictions.

Carl D. Walsh / Staff File Photo

Town officials said that close to 4,000 people cast ballots in Tuesday’s special election, the second-highest number of votes ever cast in a Scarborough special election.

Town Clerk Tody Justice said late Tuesday night that 2,880 people voted to overturn amendments made to the town’s Animal Control Ordinance by the council earlier this fall. Only 1,059 people voted to uphold the council’s action.

Councilors have scheduled a workshop for 6 p.m. Wednesday to consider what course of action the town should take, said newly elected Councilor Jean Caterina.

“The voters have spoken and we need to listen to that,” Caterina said as election workers closed the town offices late Tuesday.

There was only one question on Tuesday’s ballot. It asked voters whether they supported council amendments to the town’s Animal Control Ordinance that required all dogs to be on a leash when the animal is on a street, sidewalk or other public property.

A “yes” vote approved the amendments endorsed by town councilors while a “no” vote repealed the council’s decision and reverted to the former ordinance, which allows unleashed dogs that are under voice control on beaches in the morning during the summer – from sunrise to 9 a.m.

The council vote was meant to protect piping plovers, after an unleashed dog killed one of the federally protected birds on Pine Point Beach in July.

Following the incident, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service threatened to levy a $12,000 fine on the town.

But federal regulators agreed to drop the fine to $500 in exchange for a leash requirement on beaches during the late spring and summer – the piping plover’s nesting season.

In early October, the council took the measure a step further by enacting a year-round ban on unleashed dogs on all town property. That decision infuriated dog owners, who formed a political action committee called Dog Owners of Greater Scarborough. DOGS collected enough signatures to place a repeal measure on Tuesday’s ballot.

The dog owners’ group went all out in its efforts to overturn the council’s decision. It aired radio advertisements, telephoned residents and mailed postcards. Last week two of its members dressed up in dog costumes and stood on Route 1 holding signs that encouraged voters to overturn the council’s action.

“At that meeting (in October), the council went far beyond what even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had demanded,” the dog owners group stated in a post on its website.

“The unfortunate piping plover incident in July and subsequent overreaching by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were a pretext for introducing tough dog restrictions that some councilors had been publicly advocating for years.”

Before the council’s Oct. 2 vote, the Maine Audubon Society said Scarborough had one of the least restrictive leash laws among Maine’s coastal communities.

If the original ordinance is now followed by the town, the federal government could impose the full $12,000 fine.

The DOGS group posted a statement on its Facebook page following Tuesday’s vote that said, “Thank you Scarborough. Over 4,000 votes – 73 percent no. Go dogs go!”

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

dhoey@pressherald.com

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