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South Portland voters could have last word on Willard Beach dog access

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South Portland voters could have last word on Willard Beach dog access

SOUTH PORTLAND — Residents trying to ban dogs from Willard Beach for six months each year have collected enough signatures to put the decision before voters.

City Clerk Sue Mooney said she has authenticated more than the 925 signatures needed to put a referendum question on the November ballot.

The City Council will hold a workshop on July 6 to discuss its next move. It could either put the question to voters, or directly adopt the petition, which would significantly restrict dog access to the beach and end off-leash access entirely. 

The question would ban dogs from the beach from April 15 to Oct. 15, and require them to be leashed and under owner control on the beach from Oct. 16 to April 14.

The petition drive was led by Save Willard Beach, a group formed last year in part to counter the South Portland Dog Owners Group

Gary Crosby, SWB's de facto leader, said he and about a dozen other residents had no problem collecting signatures for their effort. He said they received support from dog owners and non-owners, and estimated that 99 percent of the 1,050 people who sign the petition supported banning dogs from the beach during the summer.

"We had the whole gamut of people signing it," Crosby said. "I think people are ready for this to come off of the council's plate and put on the people's plate."

The status of dogs on Willard Beach has haunted the City Council, by some accounts, for the last 20 years.

But after hostilities between dog owners and some beach-goers spiked last year, a task force was formed to issue recommendations. After a summer of meetings, the group determined, to the disappointment of SWB members, that there were no health issues associated with dogs urinating and defecating on the beach, as long as it was cleaned up. 

The city ultimately settled on new rules, reducing morning hours for beach dogs to 7-9 a.m. from May through September and adding evening access from 7-9 p.m. Tougher voice-control provisions, which allows dogs to be off leash, and a fine schedule were also adopted. 

DOG President Crystal Goodrich said her group has been working to educate dog owners about their responsibilities. The group handed out fliers this spring and was at the polls on Tuesday. Also, the group leads monthly clean-ups of open spaces and participates in other animal-related fundraisers. 

For Goodrich and other dog owners, the referendum isn't simply about dogs on the beach; it's about allowing equal access to public spaces.

"Any kind of restriction of a specific group of people prevents a community from coming together and working together," Goodrich said. "We are a dedicated group of people who are hoping that when most people consider the facts about people walking their dogs on Willard Beach they will vote no to preserve the public access we have to Willard Beach."  

"The vote on this issue will be a true measure of our ability to communicate with everyone in the community on an individual level," she added. 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net