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Dogs at Mitchell Field prompt Harpswell selectmen to unleash task force

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Dogs at Mitchell Field prompt Harpswell selectmen to unleash task force

HARPSWELL — The 119-acre Mitchell Field has become a favorite destination for dog owners and their pets. But some residents say they're avoiding the former U.S. Navy fuel depot because some of the owners allow their dogs to run amok, or fail to clean up after their canines. 

The Board of Selectmen last week made its first attempt to reduce tension, creating a task force that will explore the creation of new regulations for dogs, including specific off-leash hours or a separate dog park.

If the June 11 public hearing on the issue is any indication, the task force's job won't be easy. Most dog owners spoke against new leash regulations, arguing that Mitchell Field is the one public place dogs – and their owners – can exercise freely.

Meanwhile, proponents of new rules argued that the threat of being knocked over or bitten is driving away visitors.

Balancing the two sides promises to be tricky, especially as the town attempts to create more access to Mitchell Field for all recreational users.

During the public hearing, who uses Mitchell Field emerged as a significant sticking point. Dog owners argued that the majority of visitors are dog owners, and that most behave responsibly.

Dave Znamierowski, a dog owner, said the creation of a task force is "a solution in search of a problem." When town officials were unable to provide specific data about complaints or incidents at Mitchell Field, Znamierowski said he wondered if the issue is being driven by "one or two people with close ties to Mitchell Field," a reference to members of the Mitchell Field Implementation Committee, who are in favor of more dog regulations.

"Before we start talking about Draconian solutions, we should first determine if there's a problem," Znamierowski said. 

Don Miskill, a Mitchell Field committee member, said the reason Znamierowski didn't see a lot of dog feces at Mitchell Field is because Miskill is the one cleaning it up. He added that there were times when he'd asked individuals to leash their dogs, but was ignored.

"It's not dogs," Miskill said. "It's people."

Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said Monday that the town's animal control officer is on vacation and unable to provide specific statistics about dog incidents at Mitchell Field.

"I do recall (the officer) responding to a dog bite incident," Eiane said in an e-mail, "and periodically, I have received complaints primarily from and through members of the Mitchell Field Implementation Committee about dog control matters at Mitchell Field."

Most of the speakers argued against new leash regulations, but several argued that new rules were needed because some owners don't realize their dogs are a nuisance, or even dangerous. 

In a letter to the selectmen, David Chipman, also of the Mitchell Field committee, wrote that "everyone thinks their dog is under voice command, but few actually are."

Chipman suggested carving out a five-acre area for a separate, fenced-in dog park.

Doug Johnson supported that idea, but several dog owners like Al Brown argued that one of the reasons he uses Mitchell Field is because he is allowed to run its trails with his dogs. 

"I'd stop going if there was a (park)," Brown said. 

Sue Luce, a dog owner who lives near the entrance to Mitchell Field, said it would be disappointing to create rules that would change the friendly dynamic between dog owners.

"I'd hate to give up that freedom and friendship," Luce said. 

Chairman Jim Henderson, however, said there is a problem that the town needed to address. 

"We're trying to attract more people to Mitchell Field," he said. "There could be more dog owners interacting with non-dog owners."

Selectman Elinor Multer said she is attracted to establishing off-leash hours at the facility. 

Although the issue is expected to bring out passions on both sides, so far it hasn't come close to the tension level in South Portland, where two groups have waged a long battle over dog restrictions at Willard Beach. The dispute has raged for nearly two years and generated new restrictions limiting off-leash dogs to two, two-hour time slots in the morning and evening.

Although the South Portland rules have only been in place since May 1, a group has successfully pushed to bring the issue to a referendum. In November, South Portland voters will be asked to ban dogs from the beach for six months of the year. The measure would allow dogs during the winter months, but only if they're on a leash. 

Harpswell's task force is expected to begin taking shape on June 25 when selectmen draft a mission statement and committee composition. 

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net