Residents of South Portland and neighboring towns see Willard Beach as a great place to allow their dogs to run off leash. People without dogs like it, too. The City Council has been grappling with balancing both groups’ interests. Drew Johnson / The Forecaster

A 4½ hour debate about dog leashing convinced the South Portland City Council Tuesday to rewrite an already revised version of rules for dogs on city property.

The new amendment, if passed Oct. 26, will require dogs at Hinckley Park to be on a leash from 7 a.m. to noon and at Willard Beach from noon to 5 p.m. from Oct. 1 to April 30. Dogs will be allowed off leash at the park and beach outside of those time periods.

The original amendment proposed at a Sept. 21 council meeting would have required owners to keep their dogs on a leash every other day – on leash on even-numbered calendar days, off-leash on odd calendar days.

Some South Portland residents argue that dogs cause them to avoid the city’s public spaces because they fear unwanted approaches and being jumped on and because the dogs scare children. Dog owners, many from the vocal South Portland Dog Owners Group, argue that these instances of bad dog behavior are not widespread and that the newly formed Dogs & Sharing Public Spaces Advisory Committee, rather than the council, should come up with the rules.

Dozens of residents reiterated those arguments at Tuesday’s meeting on the “even day” amendment. Dog owners were opposed, saying how much they value sharing the city’s public spaces with the 2,009 dogs licensed in South Portland. Others communicated their dismay over not being able to safely use those same spaces, and that the “even day” amendment may not have gone far enough.

When the latest amendment was proposed, city park ranger Kristina Ertzner spoke in favor of it.

“I know where I need to be,” said Ertzner, explaining that having different hours for the two popular destinations would make it easier for her to enforce the leash rules.

Parks and Recreation Director Karl Coughlin liked the idea as well, saying adding signs and educating the public about the rules would be less difficult with specific hours as opposed to every other day, which he feared could become confusing.

Councilor Jocelyn Leighton, who earlier in the evening had suggested dogs be prohibited at the park and beach for a time each day to give residents the opportunity to visit those areas without dogs entirely, not just on leashes, said she had concerns about the new amendment.

“This is still allowing dogs to use the beach for the entirety of the day,” she said. “I think this is like a 60-40 compromise, and it’s still in favor of dogs.”

While dog owners were most vocal during public hearing segments of the Tuesday night’s meeting, councilors stressed that there was no clear majority on either side of the argument.

“It is 50-50 for the emails that we get,” said Councilor Deqa Dhalac. “It’s not more for the dog owners than the non-dog owners. It’s half and half of our community.”

Councilor Katelyn Bruzgo agreed, saying she believes that “what the community wants is very much split in half.”

Councilors also pushed back against some residents’ claims at the meeting that councilors were being “lazy” and “rushing” to vote on a solution.

“I feel a little bit defensive about people saying … that we are basing decisions on emotions or that we’re lazy,” said Councilor April Caricchio. “This has been something that we’ve been talking about for a long time. We’ve dedicated a lot of time and effort to this issue.”

Mayor Misha Pride also took issue with some of the public’s comments.

“I think there’s passion on both sides of this issue,” he said. “What I don’t like is the divisiveness and the way we’re characterizing our neighbors.”

He said that remarks about him and his fellow council members being lazy “really makes me not want to have another meeting,” which is required as the re-written amendment must pass a second reading Oct. 26.

“The input that we’ve received over many weeks has made this better and better,” Councilor Katherine Lewis said. “I think we’re getting closer to a solution here.”

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