More than 150 residents crowded into City Hall Monday night to make impassioned pleas to the South Portland City Council to keep allowing dogs on Willard Beach.

From senior citizens to parents with children, pet owners spoke for more than two hours about how much they enjoy visiting Willard Beach with their dogs and asked the City Council not to restrict their ability to walk their pets there.

The council chambers were so crowded that fire officials ordered people standing in doorways and seated on the floor to watch the proceedings on a TV set in a separate room downstairs, until it was their turn to speak.

“I appear here tonight on behalf of myself and my two dogs and the very small amount of freedom I am able to give them off leash at Willard Beach,” said Anthony Young, who lives at 23 Chase St.

“This is a piece of paradise hard to find elsewhere, and I am on the beach 365 days a year, sometimes twice a day,” said Young. “In all that time, I have never seen anything to validate the extreme complaints” from some beachfront residents.

At issue are recent complaints by Beach Street neighbors about excessive noise, unruly dogs and waste on the shorefront. Beach Street is next to South Portland’s most popular beach, where there is a playground, boat moorings and access for dog walkers and their pets.

The City Council did not make any decision Monday night on beach access for dog walkers, and the five councilors present did not respond to the public comments.

Councilors Claude Morgan, Maxine Beecher, Kay Loring, Jim Hughes and Linda Boudreau listened to the discussion. Councilor Tom Blake and Mayor Jim Soule were absent.

Although the City Council has not proposed to change existing ordinances, City Manager Jim Gailey said after the meeting that he and the assistant city manager plan to recommend “intermediate” steps for balancing the needs of dog walkers and some beachside residents with complaints.

Soule had requested before the meeting Monday that the City Council form a sub-committee of councilors, city staff and residents to explore making changes to the existing ordinance, Gailey said after Monday’s meeting.

There has been no formal discussion by the City Council. Details of the committee and its missions will be decided this month, Gailey said.

Current rules allow dogs to run off-leash on the beach during the day from late fall through the winter. From May 1-Sept. 30, dogs are allowed on the beach only from 6-9 a.m. and are allowed to be off-leash.

But residents like Dan LaBrie, of 6 Beach St,. argue they want pet owners and their dogs off Willard Beach during the popular summer months, when thousands of people use the shorefront. He cited health, safety and nuisance concerns.

“I can tell you right now that my wife and I are awakened at 6:30 in the morning” by pet owners and their dogs, LaBrie told the City Council Monday night. “Lots of dogs urinate and crap on the beach. That’s a fact.”

LaBrie first complained to the City Council at a workshop on April 28 that also was attended by Devon Gray, another Beach Street resident, who has argued vigorously for restricting dogs on the beach during off-season months.

LaBrie returned Monday night to speak again. But he was among only three people to oppose dogs on the beach, amid a chorus of pet owners who said they support the current pet-friendly policies and that they add to their quality of life.

Although the South Portland Dog Owners Group (DOG) organized the turnout and submitted a petition to the City Council supporting beach access, many people said they attended Monday night’s meeting after learning about if from neighbors and other dog walkers at Willard Beach.

Some wore their dogs’ leashes around their necks, and others handed out prepared statements. A few children read speeches about playing with their dogs at the beach, and a local author – Patsea Cobb – shared a children’s short story she penned about the pet-friendly shoreline, titled “A Mile of Beach to Share.”

Suzanne Woodward and her son, Sam, seemed typical of the residents who turned out for the public comment portion of the City Council meeting.

The Woodwards, who live on Mussey Street, said they visit Willard Beach almost daily with their dog, Pepper. They live in walking distance from the beach.

Sam, a fifth-grader at Small School, said he looks forward to the beach walks with the family dog and would miss them if they were banned.

Anne Houser of 7 Willard St. noted that she is a waterfront resident but has had a contrary experience with dog walkers to what LaBrie described to the City Council.

Houser said she supports the existing ordinance allowing pets on the beach and enjoys the interaction with dog walkers.

“I’m a Willard Beach resident, and I’ve never been awakened” by dogs or pet owners, said Houser, whose home is right next to the beach.

Houser said she feels fortunate to live so close to the public beach, but does not want to keep members of the public or their dogs away from the shorefront, just because they walk near her home.

Several other members of the public expressed concern that some beachside residents see Willard as their private shorefront, and even move signs and cut trees and brush that are on public property. They urged the City Council to ensure access to everyone.

Michele Benington said her family walks their dog on Willard Beach because they find it safer than walking along Sawyer Road, where their home is located.

Benington said she wished the city were more interested in calming traffic in residential areas than appeasing a handful of waterfront homeowners.

She said the noise that beachside homeowners complain about is no different from homeowners awakened by lawn mowers or kids playing basketball in a neighborhood. “This is no different than the year-around noises we hear from our front lawns, but we’re not demanding that the city do something about it.”

Many residents complained that Willard Beach is a quiet oasis, as other parts of the city have become too congested with traffic. Some people said they feel safer on Willard Beach than at some city parks, where people loiter and there is little oversight by police.

Christine Nelmes of High Street said she is disabled by a chronic health condition and uses a therapy dog. “People like myself need companionship of animals, dogs especially,” she said. “It is very, very important to preserve all the open spaces, including Willard Beach.”

But, Nelmes said, she at times has felt unsafe at Willard Beach because of aggressive behavior by a beachside property owner who wants pets off the shorefront.

She told the City Council that her 9-month-old golden retriever puppy allegedly was struck in the face with a paint scraper by a resident who has been vocal in his opposition to dogs on the beach.

“I have gone to police and written a complaint,” Nelmes said. “I was told by police that it couldn’t be called an assault because a dog is property” and the animal’s injuries did not require treatment by a veterinarian.

“I also described it all to the animal control officer,” she said.

Indeed, a handful of property owners and some members of the South Portland Dog Owners Group each have made allegations to the police against each other regarding threatening and rude behavior or illegal removal or destruction of beach plantings.

DOG is an active supporter of open spaces and beach access for pets, sponsoring beach cleanups and holding online forums with members. The group read to the City Council a statement by animal control officer Corey Hamilton, who was asked by Gailey to step up patrols at the beach.

Hamilton, who submitted the statement to Police Chief Ed Googins, wrote an assessment of problems at Willard Beach. He wrote that he walks the entire length of the beach three to four times a day but has not witnessed problems described by some neighbors.

“Overall, it is my opinion that the situation at Willard Beach has been exaggerated by a small group of the public,” Hamilton concluded.

“The typical complaints that I receive from people are that dogs are running uncontrolled on the beach, dog owners are not cleaning up dog feces on the beach, and that dogs are barking,” Hamilton wrote.

“Over the last few months, I have personally responded to only a handful of complaints that have been formally logged with the police department in regards to dog issues on the beach. On each occasion, I have responded in a very timely manner, and when I arrived at the beach to investigate the complaint, I have found nothing out of the ordinary. To this date, I have not had to issue any summonses for violations at the beach.”

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