A Portland man has sued the city to challenge new rules requiring dogs to be leashed while in Baxter Woods.

The City Council approved the change in October. Dogs in that area are now always required to be on a leash between April 1 and July 31. In other months, the city allows dogs to be unleashed in the woods from 5-9 a.m. and from 3-10 p.m.

The measure was meant to protect migratory birds during their nesting season and address concerns of those who want to use the park without having to worry about dogs running loose or jumping on them.

“This proposal attempts to balance the hours of off-leash activity so that the park is welcoming to all,” city staff wrote in their memorandum to the City Council.

Marc Lesperance says the rules went too far. He is arguing that the restriction goes against what former Maine Gov. Percival Baxter intended for the land, and he has filed two motions asking a judge to prevent Portland from enforcing the ordinance.

Lesperance is the president of Friends of Baxter Woods but has taken legal action on his own behalf. He said he isn’t outright opposed to a leash rule but wants to see some daily off-leash hours 12 months of the year.

“We understand that there are people that are bothered by dogs,” he said in an interview. “All we ever wanted was daily off-leash hours. That’s the only thing we’ve ever asked for.”

The city has not yet filed a response but stands by the new rules.

“Questions regarding the bequest to the city and the extent to which the leash restrictions are consistent with the terms of the trust were discussed at the public hearing when the Council considered the proposed ordinance changes,” Portland spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said in an email. “The city’s position has not changed.”

Clashes between dog owners who want to exercise their dogs off leash and others who want the canines restrained have erupted throughout Greater Portland in recent years, although they don’t typically end up in court. Portland’s historic Western Cemetery was the site of an epic debate over off-leash dogs 20 years ago. Willard Beach in South Portland and Pine Point Beach in Scarborough are two of the beaches in southern Maine that have been the focus of similar feuds.

The debate about off-leash dogs in Baxter Woods, a popular 32.5-acre park in Deering Center between Forest and Stevens avenues, began in 2014.

People who walk on the wooded trails with children, or with leashed dogs, complained about unleashed dogs frightening their children or pets. Others have raised concerns about wildlife impacts. But some dogs owners who had come to rely on the area as a safe space for pets to release energy and socialize resisted restrictions.

Baxter Woods was deeded to the city of Portland in 1946 by Baxter, who stipulated that the park “shall forever be kept in its natural wild state and as a sanctuary for wild birds.”

Marc Lesperance, whose dog is Marco, has sued Portland over its new rule that says dogs must be leashed in Baxter Woods at all times from April 1 to July 31. He says he just wants to see some daily off-leash hours year-round.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

But Lesperance said Baxter also had a love of dogs and took them off leash to many places, and he believes the former governor would have opposed the restrictions now in place in Portland. He wrote in his motions that the city has not appropriately considered the former governor’s writings on dogs and other documents that give context to the deed.

“If Gov. Baxter were alive, I believe he would support my request for the freedom to walk with my dog off leash in Baxter Woods on a daily basis throughout the year,” Lesperance wrote in his motion. “From his writings it is clear that Gov. Baxter would understand how important that activity is for dogs and their owners.”

The penalty for a first violation is a $75 fine. That amount increases with repeated violations and can be as much as $500.

Grondin said park rangers have issued warnings but no tickets so far to people who are violating the leash rule.

“Most people have been complying with the new rules, even if they disagree with them,” Grondin said. “We have also received some positive feedback on the changes from many park visitors.”

The city’s emergency order during the COVID-19 pandemic calls for dogs to be leashed from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on all city properties.

Note: This article was updated April 7 to correct an excerpt from the original deed.

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