Depending on who you talk to, South Portland’s 7-week-old leash rule is either working successfully or has caused a whole new set of problems.

What’s clear is that the temporary ordinance aimed at allowing dog owners to coexist peacefully with others at Willard Beach and Hinckley Park has spawned confusion, complaints to police and a call already to loosen the restrictions.

“When the new hours were put into place a month and a half ago, we found that people were having a hard time following the new rules,” Parks & Recreation Director Karl Coughlin said. “For a lot of them it was a shock. They were coming from dogs being able to be off-leash during the day.”

After three months of often contentious debate between residents and the City Council, a measure requiring all dogs at Willard Beach and Hinckley Park to be leashed from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 1 through April 30 went into effect Nov. 25.  The measure is temporary, pending proposals for a permanent solution from the city’s newly formed ad hoc Dogs & Sharing Public Spaces Committee. There were  2,009 dogs licensed in South Portland in 2021.

South Portland Police have received multiple calls about violators of the leash law.

“I can confirm that we have received recent calls regarding dog owners that are not abiding by the new leash ordinance,” Deputy Chief Kevin Gerrish wrote in an email to The Forecaster. “To this date, no police officers have issued summons as we have been treating these calls as a way to inform the public of the change.”

The South Portland Dog Group, a Facebook group with nearly 1,000 members, is calling for a loosening of the regulation.

Group moderator Ellen Clancy said the restrictions at Hinckley Park are unnecessary.

“The Hinckley folks are really upset about the Hinckley rules in the winter because nobody is actually in there for the winter except dog walkers,” Clancy said. “An underused park is a dangerous park.”

At Willard Beach, the new rule has caused “congestion,” Clancy said, especially “when people are trying to get to the beach between 3 and 4.”  She also said the on-leash restriction should be reduced to 11 a.m. to 2 pm. to give dogs more off-leash time during sunlight hours.

But Willard Beach dog owner John Murphy says the new rule is successful, allowing more non-dog walkers to enjoy the beach.

“It’s made an amazing difference,” said Murphy, who has lived in a house that overlooks the beach for 38 years. “I’m seeing many, many people everyday walking Willard Beach which, in the last 10 to 15 years, you haven’t seen.”

Murphy, a resident representative on the ad hoc committee, said he was speaking as a private citizen and not as a member of the committee.

Residents for years have complained about dogs jumping on beachgoers and even knocking them over and injuring them, especially at Willard Beach.

Murphy and Diane Gotelli, the other “concerned resident” representative on the committee, said instances of unruly dog behavior were “minimalized” in the many council meetings leading up to the leash rule. The dog owners group said at the meetings that those reports were isolated incidents that do not represent the majority of dogs in South Portland.

Some owners won’t take their dogs to the beach because of the behavior of some unruly dogs, Murphy and Gotelli said.

“I think the emphasis should be on us dog owners and how we’re ignoring the harm the dogs do,” Gotelli said. “We need not deny it or minimize it or rationalize it away. We need to accept it.”

Gotelli said she has been knocked over by dogs four times, including once when she “got badly injured.”

Jonathan Breul, a resident of three years, said in an interview with The Forecaster that he was knocked over by a dog four days before the new leash law went into effect.

“I was walking along Willard Beach, minding my own business, and looking for sea glass along the shoreline,” Breul said. “I was struck from behind, basically tackled to the ground by a huge sort of greyhound dog … clipped me from behind, just took me right off my feet, put me flat on the ground.”

He was dazed, he said, but not hurt. The dog and its owner left the beach within two or three minutes of the incident. He reported the incident to the animal control officer and to the City Council at their next meeting.

“I called (the animal control officer) and notified him,” Breul said. “After two weeks, and I hadn’t heard back, I told a supervisor. Basically, there’s no enforcement.”

Enforcement was a concern of the council in the months of debate leading up to the temporary restrictions. Coughlin says that his Parks & Recreation Department is focused on education and awareness.

“I think staffing is always a concern anytime there are new rules and regulations put into place,” he said. “Really, what we’re looking for is voluntary compliance … it is not feasible, it is not possible, to have someone down there at all times.”

Clancy said the whole issue has gotten out of hand, especially with the calls to police about violators.

“It’s gotten crazy. If it has anything to do with a dog, it’s like some federal case now,” she said. “I think people may have gotten a little bit wild about how serious this issue is … what all of a sudden has made this to be such a calamity that people are calling the police on their neighbors?”

The ad hoc committee is due to present recommendations to the council no later than March 22.

“The first few meetings, we’ve been touching base on all of our existing ordinances and talking about what other towns and cities in the area are doing,” said Coughlin, who is chairperson of the committee. “We’re going to start hammering out what each individual’s recommendations are and seeing if we can get to some sort of an agreement.”

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