Marc Lesperance and his dog Marco in 2021. Lesperance has again sued Portland over rules for Baxter Woods that call for dogs to be leashed there at all times between April 1 and July 31. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A Portland man has filed a second lawsuit against the city challenging rules that require dogs to be leashed while in Baxter Woods during certain months.

Marc Lesperance says in a lawsuit filed Monday in Cumberland County Superior Court that the city’s restrictions on unleashed dogs in the popular 32.5-acre park in Deering Center go against what former Maine Gov. Percival Baxter intended for the land. He is asking a judge to strike down the city’s leash rules and stop the parks department from issuing violations for dogs running at large.

Portland Mayor James Phinney Baxter purchased the land that is now Baxter Woods in 1882. After his death, his son, Percival Baxter, opened the woods to the public for recreation and it became known as Baxter Bird Sanctuary. When Baxter, who was Maine’s governor from 1921-25, gave 29 acres to the city in honor of his father in 1946, he stipulated that the park “shall forever be kept in its natural wild state and as a sanctuary for wild birds.”

Lesperance, president of Friends of Mayor Baxter Woods, first filed a lawsuit against the city in district court in 2021, but that was dismissed in October because the court did not have jurisdiction, according to a post on his website.

“For those with precious few hours to spend with our dogs before work or physical challenges that make walking in the street difficult, having an urban forest to exercise in is a treasure,” Lesperance wrote in the latest suit. “Gov. Baxter understood that you shouldn’t have to be a wealthy landowner to be able to let your dog run and play in nature. We created MBW for all the people of Portland to share. We are dog walkers, not criminals.”

Lesperance also has taken issue with how the city issues violations to people who walk their dogs in Baxter Woods without a leash and claims there is no statutory provision in Maine law for such a violation. In an update posted on his website, he says a judge ordered him earlier this year to pay a $500 fine for walking his dog Marco off-leash in the woods last June. He wrote that he has appealed that decision and is asking the judge to prevent the city from using non-law enforcement staff to issue summons for civil infractions related to the leash rules.


Lesperance, who does not have an attorney and is representing himself, did not respond Thursday to a request for an interview about the lawsuit.

City spokesperson Jessica Grondin said the city received the complaint on Monday and “has not yet had the opportunity to review it closely or assess the merits.”

After the first lawsuit was filed in 2021, the city said that “questions regarding the bequest to the city and the extent to which the leash restrictions are consistent with the terms of the trust were discussed at the public hearing when the (City) Council considered the proposed ordinance changes. The city’s position has not changed.”

Autumn colors light up a trail at Baxter Woods in Portland in November 2021. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Debate about off-leash dogs at Baxter Woods began in 2014 and the Friends of Mayor Baxter Woods group formed in 2019 to fight leash rules.

In 2021, after city officials and park users held several public meetings in an effort to forge a compromise, the City Council adopted changes to a policy that requires owners to keep their dogs on an 8-foot leash at all times from April 1 to July 31. In other months, dogs are allowed to be unleashed in the woods between 5 and 9 a.m. and 3 and 10 p.m.

The measure was adopted to protect migratory birds during nesting season and address concerns from people who want to use the park without worrying about dogs running loose or jumping on them.


Lesperance said in his lawsuit that the city did not consider Percival Baxter’s intent regarding off-leash dogs when it adopted the rules.

“At the time Gov. Baxter gifted (Mayor Baxter Woods) to the people of Portland, dogs accompanied their owners all over the city and there were no restrictions to dogs being off leash anywhere,” the complaint says. “We know Gov. Baxter would have allowed off leash dogs at MBW, as he was one of Maine’s earliest and most fervent animal rights activists.”

Baxter, who owned and bred Irish setters, wrote a book about dogs in 1923 while he was governor, according to the lawsuit, which quotes sections of the book. Lesperance believes Gov. Baxter envisioned Baxter Woods as a place where dogs would be off-leash.

“What’s clearly evident in his writings is that Gov. Baxter had a lifelong belief that dogs had rights, and that one in particular was that they be free dogs, off leash!” he wrote in the complaint.

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