A City Council committee is recommending that Portland imposes leash restrictions on dogs in Baxter Woods.

Following a public hearing that lasted just over two hours Wednesday night, the three members of the Standing Committee on Sustainability and Transportation unanimously threw their support behind a Department of Parks, Recreation and Facilities proposal to limit the times that dogs can run free in the 32-acre nature preserve located between Stevens and Forest avenues.

Their recommendation will be brought before the nine-member City Council in March or April for final adoption, disappointing many dog owners, who urged the council to delay restrictions. They also opposed setting aside 5.5 acres of the park as a bird sanctuary. Dog owners said the forested preserve near the heart of Maine’s largest city provides a refuge for dogs and their owners.

But Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who chairs the committee, and fellow Councilors Belinda Ray and Jill Duson said it was their duty to honor the terms of the 1946 deed in which former Maine Gov. Percival Baxter conveyed the land to the city with the stipulation that Baxter Woods be kept in its natural state and be maintained as a sanctuary for wild birds.

“The larger issue has always been the bird sanctuary piece,” Ray said. “We accepted this land in return for honoring that pledge.”

Under the city’s proposal, dogs would need to be on an 8-foot leash at all times between April 1 and July 31 to coincide with migratory bird nesting season.


Between Aug. 1 and March 31, dogs that are under voice control would be permitted to be off leash from 5-9 a.m. and from 5-10 p.m., but must be leashed between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Dog owners asked that the council extend the morning off-leash hours to 10 a.m.

Duson praised the city staff’s proposal, calling it a reasonable compromise that should discourage dog owners, whose pets are not under voice control, from ruining the Baxter Woods experiences for owners whose dogs are leashed or under voice control.

“We wouldn’t be having this debate if all the dogs who go there were under voice control,” Duson said.

City staff also are recommending that there be a protected 5.5-acre habitat restoration area in Baxter Woods. That area would be off limits to dogs year-round. The area would create a safe habitat that would support migratory bird reproduction, according to a proposal filed with the committee.

City staff said restricting off-leash dogs also is needed to address public safety concerns. The Parks and Recreation Department acknowledges it has received complaints from park users who have either been intimidated by a dog running freely or been injured by such a dog. Trails at Baxter Woods are used by runners, walkers, mountain bikers, and people who want to snowshoe and cross-country ski.

Marc Lesperance, speaking on behalf of the Friends of Baxter Woods, asked the council to do a survey to determine how many people who own dogs are using the park.


Lesperance, a dog owner, said he realizes that some people are afraid of dogs that are not under their owner’s control, but he said the city and his organization should work toward finding a solution that will not restrict dog owners’ enjoyment of the preserve. His group opposes the April 1 through July 31 leash restriction.

“There is nothing like Baxter Woods. We don’t want to give it up. That’s why we are fighting so hard,” Lesperance said.

Sally DeLuca, director of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Facilities, said city park rangers were assigned to Baxter Woods in July to monitor dog activity. Through February, rangers recorded seeing 764 off-leash dogs in the park. Of those dogs, 65 were not under voice control and rangers said they observed 666 dog droppings that had not been collected by their owners.

“This is about us speaking up for the entire community. Baxter Woods is not a dog park, that wasn’t the intention. We are trying to strike a balance here,” DeLuca said.

Tessa Wood, who lives at Deering Center, used to bring her rescue dog, Oscar, to Baxter Woods, on a leash, adding “a tired dog is a happy dog.”

But she has stopped going to the park because Oscar gets anxious about the off-leash dogs that try to interact with him. She supports the city leash restriction proposal.

“It’s not a safe place emotionally for a dog like him,” Wood said.

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