Shannon Weld, of Portland, left, and Jean Weld, of Bath, walk their 5-year-old Belgian Tervurens, Lila and Annie, through Hinckley Park in South Portland on Monday. The City Council has put a new rule in place requiring dogs to be leashed at all times in the park, starting in mid-June and running through September. Sean Murphy / The Forecaster

Dog-walkers visiting Hinckley Park in South Portland will have to keep their pooches on leashes, at least for a while.

That was the decision of the South Portland City council Tuesday night, following a lengthy public hearing dominated by impassioned pleas from pet owners who said the rule would rob their animals of much-needed exercise.

“Dogs need to run free,” said Sawyer Street resident Kathy Pipkin. “For the love of our pets, please respect their needs.”

The council, with Councilor April Caricchio absent, voted unanimously to amend the city’s ordinance to require dog owners to leash their dogs in Hinckley Park. Previously, owners had the option to have their animals unleashed provided they were under voice control. The new rule will officially take effect June 14, and will last until Sept. 30.

The issue drew attention on April 24, when two unleashed dogs attacked and killed a resident’s cat near the park. The dogs’ owner was cited for two counts of allowing dogs to be at large, South Portland police said.

Residents said during the May 25 public hearing that the new rule was unfairly punishing responsible pet owners because of an incident that they said was unusual.

“Obviously it’s terrible if something happens to someone’s animal, but you’re not going to take cars off the road because someone’s animal gets hit,” said one man, who only identified himself on the Zoom public meeting as “Connor.”

Another speaker, Lisa Mayo, who did not indicate her address, said she is a frequent visitor to the park and has never noticed any loose dogs acting in a threatening or dangerous manner.

“All of my experiences there have been positive,” she said. “Please do not over-fix the situation by penalizing everyone.”

Councilors were quick to point out that their decision was not just about safety. Mayor Misha Pride noted that the council was already planning a workshop, now scheduled for Aug. 3, to address multiple issues at the park, including erosion of the banks around the central pond and pond water contamination that been linked in part to dog waste.

“I think the cat just drew more attention to the facts at Hinckley Park,” Pride said.

According to documents describing the workshop, the council plans to discuss options for more permanently controlling animal behavior, and even the possibility of establishing a formal dog park elsewhere in the city. Councilor Katelyn Bruzgo stressed she was just as concerned about the overall health of the park as she was about safety, and insisted the goal was not to penalize anyone.

“This is not about dog lovers versus dog haters,” she said.

One resident commented about the need to protect the park’s health. Former City Councilor Rosemarie DeAngelis said she goes to the park three times a week, and she believes loose dogs have contributed to damaged vegetation and erosion along the pond’s edge.

“I think this is really critical to the well-being of our park,” she said of the rule.

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