SCARBOROUGH – A group calling itself Dog Owners of Greater Scarborough has vowed to mount a citizens’ petition drive aimed at undoing any new leash law adopted this week by the Town Council, in hopes of overturning it at the polls in November.

Wednesday’s Town Council meeting took place after the deadline for this week’s Current, but councilors were expected to pass an ordinance update that will ban dogs from running off leash on public beaches in Scarborough from April 1 to Sept. 15.

Dogs are allowed to run free on most municipal beaches during the summer from sunrise to 9 a.m. only. They are banned from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and must be on a leash from 5 p.m. to sunset. But the town is under pressure from the U.S. Department of the Interior to change that following the July 15 mauling of an endangered piping plover chick by a dog on Pine Point Beach. The new ordinance also calls on shortening allowable leash lengths from 30 to 8 feet.

Over the objections of more than 100 dog lovers, the Town Council unanimously passed the first reading of the new leash law at its Aug. 21 meeting. Although Councilor Judy Roy hinted the second reading on Sept. 4 would be accompanied by an amendment of some form, members of the new dog-owners group say anything other than the current rules is unacceptable.

“In my opinion, we are doing a very good job in Scarborough balancing the needs of an endangered species with the needs of dogs,” said Suzanne Foley-Ferguson, a former town councilor who introduced the current rules in 2001 as chairman of the ordinance committee. “I say that because they really don’t know why the plover isn’t successful here. It could be climate change. They blame dogs, but right now, 87 percent of the time, dogs are required to be leashed or off the beach during nesting season.”

Last Wednesday, a dozen dog owners met at the Vesper Street home of one of the new advocacy group’s members. Foley-Ferguson advised an “incremental approach” to that group, made up largely of residents from Higgins and Pine Point beaches, as well as a couple from South Portland who walk their dogs locally.

The group seemed incensed by two late-breaking items in the fight that began when new leash rules were proposed soon after the plover death. While many faulted the town for seeming to hope the new ordinance would save it from a $25,000 fine from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for violating the Endangered Species Act because the plover was reportedly killed at 7 a.m. when dogs can run free more have balked at a revelation made by Councilor Jessica Holbrook late in the Aug. 21 meeting.

Holbrook noted that an Aug. 20 letter from Laury Zicari, field supervisor for the Maine Field Office of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, to Edward O’Donnell, chief of the navigation section of the Army Corps of Engineers New England District, ties the leash law to dredging work scheduled to take place on the Scarborough River this winter.

“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,” wrote Zicari.

The $3.5 million dredging project will move 150,000 cubic yards of sand from the shipping channel and use it as “nourishment” for 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. 21 email from Town Manager Tom Hall to the council advised that “we use this condition as a justification for the [dog ordinance] amendment,” rather than the potential federal fine.

Although enforcement officials from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have refused to acknowledge the existence of any investigation, Hall has said he’s been asked to provide information to state and federal investigators. 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 says the federal case is complete and has been referred to the U.S. Department of the Interior. That was good news, he said, as the other possibility, a referral to the U.S. Attorney General’s Office, might have signaled a more punitive action against the town.

“It seems that the town is unwilling to have the backbone to stand up to the feds and delay this for a year for some reason,” said King Street resident Robert Rovner, who has advocated for a study group on the issue. Like many dog owners, Rovner has said that the real issue is a lack of manpower for enforcement, a problem likely to be exacerbated by the creation of additional restrictions.

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 the shore birds the number of surviving chicks per mating pair was 1.9 this year, up from 1.52 in 2012. Fish and Wildlife says 1.5 is the minimum needed to sustain the species. In Scarborough, the productivity rate of the four nesting pairs observed was a mere 0.7 percent, even though 2013 was the first time in at least four years when a dog was implicated in a plover death.

Many group members also have questioned whether Councilor Kate St. Clair, a leading advocate for the new leash law, is breaking the law herself. At an ordinance committee meeting leading up to submission of the new proposal, St. Clair mentioned having two dogs of her own, saying she would never consider walking them on the beach for fear of bothering others. However, following an Aug. 27 email from Hall to Rovner, in which the town manager confirmed St. Clair has no dogs registered in her name, some have asked if her reticence might be tied to fear of drawing a fine of her own.

“I no longer have full ownership of those dogs, which is why they are not licensed in the town of Scarborough, and that’s about all I’m going to give out for personal information,” said St. Clair on Tuesday.

“I think the whole thing is ridiculous,” she said. “The last thing I need is a full-blown war with these people. No one wants to take their dogs away, but we have a liability to every single person in this town, not just the dog owners. That’s not the whole reason we are doing this.

“Just because these people are coming out in force and causing a major ruckus, it doesn’t mean they’re right,” said St. Clair.

During last week’s meeting of dog owners, those assembled questioned which councilors they might be able to turn, should they be able to coordinate the three minutes each speaker would be allowed at Wednesday’s public hearing into a cohesive argument.

After more than an hour of debate, they ultimately concluded that the town councilors are unlikely to change their minds, with the threat of a halt to the dredging work in the offing if Scarborough does not tighten its leash law. It is, they say an odd quid pro quo for the Maine field office to make, given that the Army Corps of Engineers is mandated by Congress to maintain the shipping channel.

With none in the group willing to run for Town Council themselves, in hopes of introducing a return to free run time after the dredging work is complete, the idea of a citizens petition rose as the only card left to play.

“‘Consider’ is the wrong word, we are definitely going to do it,” said Higgins Beach resident Jim Riechel of the petition.

“There are households that are split on this issue,” said Foley-Ferguson. “It’s going to be a nasty fight.”

“It’s nasty now,” said Riechel.

A group of dog owners from Scarborough and South Portland debate how best to fight proposed new leash law in Scarborough during an Aug. 28 meeting held at a Higgins Beach home on Vesper Street. Also at the meeting is a Swiss mountain dog named Higgins.

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