SCARBOROUGH – Over the objections of more than 100 dog lovers, the Scarborough Town Council moved one step closer to a new leash law Wednesday night, voting unanimously to adopt the first reading an update to the Animal Control Ordinance that will ban dogs from running off leash on public beaches from April 1 to Sept. 15.

Currently, dogs are allowed to run free on municipal beaches, albeit “under voice control,” during most of the year, and from sunrise to 9 a.m. from June 15 to Sept. 15. During the summer, dogs may not be on the beach at all from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and present only on a leash limited to 30 feet in length from 5 p.m. until sunset. Dogs are not allowed at all on the shores of Scarborough Beach State Park.

The new rules were prompted by a July 15 incident in which an unleashed dog mauled a newborn piping plover at Pine Point Beach and most of the 34 people who addressed the council Wednesday said lack of enforcement, rather than lax rules, was the root of the problem.

A handful of speakers, such as Clearwater Drive resident Eddie Woodin who suggested creation of a dog park elsewhere in town supported a ban from the beach. However, most said the new leash law was a case of making responsible dog owners suffer because of a few scofflaws. Some suggested that if the town was serious about protecting the plovers, it would ban people from the beach as well, but wouldn’t venture that far for fear of an even greater popular uprising.

Despite repeated tales of people reacting rudely when advised of the rules, Town Manager Tom Hall said the owner of the dog that killed the plover was obeying the law when the incident happen. No fines will be leveled against the dog owner, described by Hall as female resident of King Street, because the incident happened at around 7 a.m. near the waterline a time and place the dog was allowed on the beach, he said.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is conducting an investigation to determine if the town should be held responsible for failing to protect the plover chick. With just 47 nesting pairs in Maine, the piping plover is listed as an endangered species by the state. On the federal level, it holds the status of a “threatened” species.

Hall said the federal investigation has been referred to the U.S. Department of the Interior, a signal it may be complete. That was good news, he said, as the other possibility, a referral to the U.S. Attorney General’s Office, might have meant a more punitive action against the town, including fines starting at $25,000.

The only information on the investigation has come from Holmes and other local officials. In separate interviews July 29, both Eric Holmes, a Maine-based senior special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife law enforcement division, and his supervisor, Daniel McNamara, acting resident agent in charge of law enforcement for Fish & Wildlife in the New England states, refused to confirm federal interest in the plover death.

“It’s policy of the agency not to comment on any criminal investigation,” said McNamara. “Once the criminal matter is concluded, if there is one, you could file a Freedom of Information Act request for the results.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, Hall also revealed that a $3.5 million dredging project to be undertaken this winter to clear the shipping channel of the Scarborough River is contingent on Scarborough strengthening its leash law. The 150,000 cubic yards of sand to be taken from the Scarborough River will be used for “nourishment” of Western Beach, to restore piping plover habitats and to rebuild dunes that washed away in March, causing two of the 18 holes at the Prouts Neck Country Club to be flooded out of use.

An Aug. 20 letter from Laury Zicari, field supervisor for the Maine Field Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states, to Edward O’Donnell, chief of the navigation section of the Army Corps of Engineers’ New England District, states that, “Our concurrence is based on the assumption that the Town of Scarborough will revise their Animal Control Ordinance and Beach Management Agreement to require that dogs be kept on a leash during the piping plover nesting season.”

Many of the speakers, including local residents, vacationers, and people from surrounding towns who walk their dogs on Scarborough beaches, accused councilors of kowtowing to federal strong arm tactics.

Still, when the vote came, after nearly two hours of public testimony, Judy Roy, acting at council chairperson in the absence of Ron Ahlquist, told those who stuck it out to the end, that there may be changes to come before the official public hearing and second reading of the proposal on Sept. 4.

“There may be an amendment next time, from myself and others,” she said.

However, Councilor Richard Sullivan said he is “not optimistic” of any reprieve or dog owners, given that only a total ban on allowing dogs to run free “seemed to satisfy the government agencies.”

“It’s not just the nesting areas that have to be protected, it’s the whole beach,” said Councilor Ed Blaise, a resident of Higgins Beach.

“I understand the position you are in,” Lucky Lane resident Katy Foley told the council. “I ask as you go through this that you keep your motivators in check is it because this is the best thing for the citizens, the best thing for the dogs and the beaches, the best thing for the plovers, or are we hiding from a fine that’s impending on us?

“Simply amending the Animal Control Ordinance alone will not protect the piping plovers and further,” said Foley. “If you make more stringent laws and continue to not enforce them, you are still going to find yourself in a situation where you are liable.”

“Irresponsible dog owners do not care whether it is this ordinance, or a new ordinance. They will not pay attention,” said Joanne Mahoney, who recently moved to Pillsbury Drive after 17 years of vacationing in Scarborough from out of state, partly because of the lure of being able to run her dog off leash at the waterline during the summer, even if for a short three-hour window in the early mornings.

Catherine Rogers, who owns the Dog Paws Inn on Gorham Road, called the leash law an “overreaction,” and predicted dire economic consequences for the town if it gets adopted.

“There are people who I’m sure will stay elsewhere and spend their money elsewhere if the ordinance is changed,” she said.

Still, Traczie Bellinger, a seasonal biologist with Maine Audubon specializing in piping plovers, said Scarborough remains a hard habitat for plovers. Statewide, the productivity rate for plovers the number of surviving chicks per mating pair was 1.9 this year, up from 1.52 last year. Fish and Wildlife says 1.5 is the minimum needed to sustain the species. In Scarborough, even though 2013 was the first time in at least four years when a dog was implicated in a plover death, the productivity rate of the four nesting pairs observed was a mere 0.7 percent, said Bellinger.

One solution, presented in a letter by King Street resident Robert Rovner, is to increase animal control patrols in the summer months, something Lindsay Tudor, a wildlife biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said her agency “may be willing to help with.”

Rovner was gaveled out of order by Roy and made to sit down after he complained about a recent spike in taxes and then launched into a series of accusations, including his observation that, “You can’t even keep the people you hire to clean the beach from smoking on the job.”

However, Rovner’s idea for a fix also was presented by Falmouth resident Gail Derice, who appeared to have come up with it independently. Why not sell beach passes to dog owners, she asked, who would take a test to assure they understood the rules of the beach.

“I would be willing to do that,” she said, “If it would generate money to hire increased patrols.”

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