SACO – The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday against banning dogs from city beaches during the height of the summer season.

Instead, the council voted to require that dogs be on leashes during the busiest times for beachgoers. The vote came after five hours of public comment and discussion across three meetings — and a passionate outcry from dog owners who opposed a ban.

Dog owners can continue to bring their canines to city beaches at any time, but must keep them on leashes from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in July and August. At all other times, dogs must be on leash or under their owners’ control.

Owners also must pick up and remove dog feces from the beach, as was already required under city ordinance.

The ordinance amendment defeated by the council would have banned dogs from the beach from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., June 15 to Sept. 15. During those months, dogs would have been allowed off leash only from sunrise to 9 a.m.

The council discussion was prompted by a letter from the Baywood Condominium Owner’s Association that said Saco has become a “mecca” for dog owners across southern Maine. The letter outlined concerns about aggressive animals and dog feces left in the sand.

Dog owners opposed to new restrictions said they didn’t want to lose access to one of the only beaches in southern Maine that allows dogs during summer. They disputed claims that dog feces can be found regularly on the beach.

The City Council asked Police Chief Brad Paul to develop an ordinance for consideration. He based it on Scarborough’s rules, which restrict dogs during summer months.

Councilor Marston Lovell proposed the amendment to eliminate the summer ban and replace it with the leash requirement during July and August days. He said until the city can afford to enforce rules for dogs on the beach, the leash restriction “is a fair substitute.”

Lovell, who owns a large dog, said he sees firsthand the reaction of people who are afraid of dogs, even if the dogs are not aggressive. Requiring dogs to be on leashes during summer days may help allay some of those fears, he said.

Sally Sea, a Baywood Condominium resident, said she was “very content” with the council vote, even though some condo residents wanted restrictions in line with surrounding towns.

“This, for Saco, seems like a fair compromise,” she said after the meeting. “I think the people that obey the rules always have and will continue to. We’ll have to see if the people who didn’t will start.”

Before the council vote, Mayor Mark Johnston allowed 15 minutes of public comment. He said he received more than 100 emails from residents on the issue, the majority in favor of allowing dogs on the beach at all times.

Resident Jena Kerns said she opposed a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ban on dogs, but would support the leash compromise. If the council had approved the proposed ban, it would have restricted access for 92 days.

“These are the best 92 days of the year,” she said. “I want to go to the beach with my dogs year round.”

Jeanne Labonte, owner of Paw-zn-Around Doggy Daycare in Saco, said the discussion generated by the proposed ban will serve as a “wake-up call” to people who weren’t cleaning up after or controlling their dogs.

“Give the people of Saco a chance to prove themselves,” she said.

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: [email protected]