August 27, 2013

Maine Voices: Revised Scarborough dog ordinance needs thoughtful review

Eliminating off-leash hours on all beaches in the wake of a plover chick's death is an overreaction.

Special to the Press Herald

SCARBOROUGH — Like many others, I was distressed to learn about the loss of a piping plover chick on Pine Point Beach last month. At the same time, I highly value being able to exercise my dog off-leash on Scarborough beaches under the town's existing ordinance.

The proposed solution of eliminating the off-leash hours on all beaches appears to be a hasty overreaction and completely out of proportion to the issue.

Since the danger period for piping plover chicks is now over for this season, I would strongly encourage the Town Council to take a deep breath and conduct a measured and balanced review of the issue during the fall and winter months.

Such a review could include formation of a citizen group consisting of representatives of the various parties affected -- naturalists, beach management, dog owners and law enforcement. This group would be charged with soliciting public and professional input, carefully reviewing the facts and making recommendations to the council for any necessary revisions to the existing ordinance.

Among the factors that may not have been appropriately considered in the currently proposed ordinance revision are:

• The time frame for restricting off-leash hours does not match the period for which piping plover chicks may be at risk from dogs. Uncontrolled dogs could conceivably be considered a threat from the time a chick hatches until it can fly, a period of about four to five weeks, which can occur between the beginning of May through mid-August.

Under the current ordinance, dogs under voice control may be on the beaches from 6 to 9 a.m. from June 15 to Sept. 15. It is presumably this off-leash period that will be eliminated in an ordinance revision.

• Not all beaches are nesting sites for piping plovers. To my knowledge, there has been no plover nesting on Western and Ferry beaches this year. And I am unaware that there has ever been nesting activity at the eastern end of Ferry Beach.

• Signage and public education could be much improved. I am familiar only with Higgins and Ferry beaches, but the signage at those beaches is definitely not adequate.

• Dogs rank very low on the threat list for piping plovers -- crows, gulls, foxes, skunks, cats and raccoons are all much more serious predators. Until the recent unfortunate incident, there has not been a loss of a plover in Scarborough caused by a dog in many years.

Last year on Higgins Beach, however, there was significant harassment of plovers and abandonment of an established nest caused by partying teenagers. In that case, summonses were appropriately issued, but there was no movement to ban teenagers (who are notoriously unresponsive to voice control) from the beaches.

• Humans and their pets are part of "the natural world," too. Hundreds of Scarborough residents and visitors enjoy the opportunity to walk and exercise their dogs on the beaches. Their needs should be part of the equation considered in any ordinance revision.

The importance of having off-leash time available should not be underestimated or ignored. This is a major contribution to the quality of life enjoyed and highly prized by many Scarborough residents and visitors.

One of the major motivations for hastily "fixing" the town's dog ordinance by eliminating off-leash hours is quite clearly the avoidance of a major fine ($25,000 to $50,000) on the town being considered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. No details of the basis for that threatened fine have been reported. At the very least, shouldn't Scarborough residents understand the reason for such a fine?

And isn't it somewhat disconcerting that an unnamed federal bureaucrat is apparently dictating how Scarborough's beaches are accessed and enjoyed? Without more information, one could interpret the current rush to amend the dog ordinance as the town being bullied by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The formation of an ad hoc advisory group that will carefully weigh all aspects of the issue and develop reasonable, fact-based and balanced recommendations on this issue is in the best interests of all of us.

 

Stephen Hanly is a resident of Scarborough.

 

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