South Portland’s Willard Beach has long been a popular destination for dogs and their owners. Contributed / South Portland Dog Owners Group

The South Portland City Council will vote Tuesday on whether to limit unleashed dogs’ time at Willard Beach and Hinckley Park, a move that is pitting members of a dog owners group against residents who want to visit city parks without fear of loose, rambunctious dogs.

The proposed amendment would require owners to keep their dogs on leash on city property on even-numbered calendar days from Oct. 1 through April 30. Current ordinances permit dogs to be at the city’s parks off-leash every day in that date range.

“This isn’t banning dogs from Willard, nor am I even considering banning dogs from any public area in the city,” said Councilor Jocelyn Leighton. “This is just making sure that there’s times during the day, that works for everybody, that there are on-leash dogs.”

Ellen Clancy, an administrator and moderator of the South Portland Dog Owners Group on Facebook, said the group thinks the proposed change is “another one-off solution that is ill-thought out.”

“The thing we really want is for the regular winter hours to just come back,” Clancy said.

But John Pani, who lives in the Willard Beach neighborhood, says it is the best solution he’s heard so far.

“It is the only serious proposal I have heard that changes the status quo to something that is fair. It is not ideal, it’s probably short-term, but it’s at least fair.”

Pani wrote about badly behaved dog incidents he has witnessed at the beach in a  Maine Voices opinion column in the Portland Press Herald this week. He said those incidents range from dogs scaring children to knocking over and urinating on their sandcastles. He also said dogs have jumped on him several times.

Pani, who has lived in South Portland since January, said in an interview with The Forecaster, “Almost the first thing that people brought up to me as I would meet them would be how intolerable this situation at Willard Beach has become.”

Clancy said that arguments like Pani’s aren’t true, play on people’s emotions and “really aren’t representative” of the vast majority of dogs and their owners.

Leighton has heard from “a tremendous amount of community members” through phone calls and emails and even has been stopped at the grocery store. While their perspectives varied, many told her they don’t feel safe around dogs when they’re off-leash, she said.

“I need to listen to those citizens as much as I need to listen to those citizens who want dogs and off-leash hours,” she said.

Pani agrees.

“Much of the discussion about Willard Beach is full of insensitivity to the problems that people have in using the city’s parks,” he said.

The South Portland Dog Owners Group is in support of the council’s recent formation of the Dogs & Sharing Public Spaces Advisory Committee, which will solicit public feedback on all city public spaces and recommend changes to existing ordinances. The dog group is concerned, however, about who will be appointed to that panel.

The council will soon name four residents, two from the dog group and two who have taken issue in the past with dogs on city property, to the committee. Other members will be the city’s Parks and Recreation director, park ranger and animal control officer. While applications for the two of the resident seats are open to the public, the dog group must present a list of candidates to the council to decide from for its two seats.

“I absolutely know that whatever candidates are put forth by SoPo Dogs will be open-minded and ready to solve,” Clancy said. “Compromise is almost certainly going to have to be the end game.”

While confident in the intent of their candidates, the group has concerns on who will fill the two other empty seats.

“I hope the council knows not to appoint people who have made just extremist kinds of comments at City Council meetings,” said Eve Raimon of the dog owners group. The people she is wary of have conveyed that “they really don’t want dogs on the beach at all,” which she fears could impact their ability to compromise.

While the group would prefer the committee find a solution, residents like Pani believe that the council must take immediate action.

“Many of us don’t want to wait while they talk,” said Pani of the committee. “We don’t know if they’ll come up with a solution, or when. We need a status quo that all of us can live with while this ad hoc committee talks.”

Leighton said that while the committee will have the time to dive deeper into the dog issue, the council has been making strides in finding a fair solution these past few months and believe the “even day” amendment is just that.

“I don’t think it’s a knee-jerk reaction to have made the decision to implement (the amendment) right now while the committee does its work,” she said.

The South Portland Dog Owners Group, which has more than 900 Facebook members, has a history of fighting for their dogs’ ability to access South Portland’s public spaces.

Formed 15 years ago, the group advocates for the preservation and expansion of off-leash areas for dogs and to educate dog owners about good dog citizenship.

In 2009, it successfully worked to defeat a South Portland referendum that would have banned dogs from Willard Beach from April 15 to Oct. 15. During the remaining months of the year, dogs would only be allowed there on a leash.

The City Council meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Oct. 12. A link to the Zoom meeting will be provided at southportland.org. It will also be streamed by South Portland Community Television and available for viewing the next day at vimeo.com/spctv.

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