SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council gave preliminary approval Tuesday night to new offseason leash requirements for dogs at Willard Beach and Hinckley Park after debating the issue for months and amending several ordinance proposals.

The council voted unanimously that from Oct. 1 through April 30, dogs must be leashed from noon to 5 p.m. at Willard Beach and from 7 a.m. to noon at Hinckley Park. They may run off leash at other times when city parks are open to the public between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.

“This is short term to give people time on the beach when they aren’t going to be approached by dogs,” said Mayor Misha Pride, referencing the ad-hoc committee the council has formed to address a variety of dog-related issues in public areas.

Councilor Jocelyn Leighton voted for the amendment but noted that it didn’t address the concerns of residents who are seeking access to Willard Beach and Hinckley Park when no dogs are present.

The new leash requirements are up for a final vote Oct. 26 and would go into effect 20 days later.

The council heard about three hours of testimony Tuesday night in what is the latest chapter in the perennial challenge that city officials face in balancing the outdoor recreational needs of people who own dogs and those who don’t.

By the end of the night, the council dropped a proposal on the table that would have required dog owners to keep their pets leashed at Willard Beach on even calendar days, and at Hinckley Park on odd calendar days, from Oct. 1 through April 30. The goal was to let non-dog owners visit the two popular dog walking sites when they wouldn’t have to fear getting run down or jumped on by uncontrolled off-leash dogs.

Other animal control ordinances stipulate that between May 1 and Sept. 30, dogs are allowed at Willard Beach only between 7 and 9 a.m. and 7 and 9 p.m. Dogs must be leashed while on public streets, sidewalks, parking lots, within Mill Creek Park, or on the Greenbelt Walkway. In other public spaces, including Hinckley Park and Willard Beach, dogs must be under immediate voice control.

Cedar returns a stick to owner Alice Jones of Portland while playing fetch Tuesday at Willard Beach, where dogs will have to be leashed from noon to 5 p.m., Oct. 1 to April 30. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Under these rules, Willard Beach and Hinckley Park have become popular destinations for dog owners throughout Greater Portland and triggered recurring conflicts over dog waste, environmental impacts and public safety.

Most recently, city officials flagged hundreds of piles of feces left throughout Hinckley Park in March 2019 to raise public awareness of the public health and safety issue that existed there. In July 2020, the city closed two ponds in the park that developed a toxic algae bloom from dog feces.

And in May this year, the council enacted a temporary leash law in the park through Sept. 30 after two unleashed dogs attacked and killed a resident’s cat near the park. The council also recently agreed to form the Dogs & Sharing Public Spaces Advisory Committee, which will study the issue and recommend further changes.

More than a dozen dog owners, including members of the South Portland Dog Owners Group, spoke against the even-odd proposal during the council’s Zoom meeting Tuesday night.

They described the change as potentially alienating, segregating and punishing, and they questioned curbing offseason access when the “chaos” at Willard Beach occurs in the summer months. City officials have counted as many as 300 dogs on Willard Beach during summer morning hours.

Several dog owners suggested the best solution would be to extend daily dog hours from the summer into the offseason and asked the council to wait for the advisory committee to do its work.

Ben Rapaport of South Portland walks with his dog, Finn, at Willard Beach in South Portland on Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“I completely understand the desire to do something now,” said Susan McCray. “There have been some legitimate concerns raised. We need to give the committee the time that it needs.”

Several residents spoke in favor of the even-odd proposal, including a few dog owners, and noted that dogs are allowed in many public spaces in the city besides Willard Beach and Hinckley Park.

Maryann Brown said the city’s parks are public spaces that belong to everyone, but she doesn’t feel she can enjoy them safely. She challenged dog owners who said they see few people without dogs on Willard Beach and in Hinckley Park, saying that the presence of so many dogs keeps them away.

“I need access,” Brown said. “Some of these dogs are very large. I’m not very large.”

At Willard Beach Tuesday afternoon, some dog owners were visiting from neighboring Portland, including Craig and Loren Mathieson with their young daughter and two Boston terriers.

Craig Mathieson said the even-odd proposal seemed “like a fair solution,” but he questioned whether it was chipping away at places where dogs can run free on a beach. Loren Mathieson said some special consideration should be made for people with mobility or sensory issues, and for dogs that don’t do well off leash and smaller, less aggressive dogs that might be overrun by larger dogs.

Libby and John Herrick live near Willard Beach and walk there often. Former dog owners, they love seeing the dogs run, but they didn’t enjoy it when one ran right through their picnic on the beach and scared their young grandchild.

“The problem is dog owners who think their dog is under voice control but really it’s not,” John Herrick said. “It’s only a few who spoil it for the rest.”

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