Falmouth council weighs ‘significant’ new rules for dogs

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FALMOUTH — After more than a year of discussion and review, the Town Council is ready to move forward on sweeping new rules governing dog on town lands.

The proposed ordinance amendments would require pet owners to leash their dogs within 300 feet of any trailhead or parking lot. In addition, dogs would have to be leashed during any organized activity or event, and would be prohibited from all playground areas and playing fields.

The new rules would also require that dogs be leashed at all times from April 1 to Sept. 30 each year at the Hadlock Community Forest, North Falmouth Community Forest and Suckfish Brook Conservation Area.

And, dogs would be banned entirely from the River Point Conservation Area.

At the March 27 meeting, council Chairwoman Karen Farber said the new rules are the result of several public forums, as well as review by several town committees and the council’s own Ordinance Committee.

Councilor Caleb Hemphill said he’s “strongly recommending” passage of the new rules, and argued the measures being considered have already “been brought before the public several times and the public has reached a consensus.”

“These are significant changes, no doubt,” Hemphill added, “but we can live with them.”

Councilor Ned Kitchel agreed and said that even though he and his wife are dog owners, “I support this. It’s an issue of protecting wildlife and in making sure dogs are under control.”

In areas where leashes are not required, dogs must be under voice control. Even so, Town Manager Nathan Poore said once the new rules go into effect it would be wise for any dog owner to “always have a leash on hand.”

The council is set to hold a public hearing on the new rules at 7 p.m. April 24.

Assuming the new rules are approved, Lucky D’Ascanio, Falmouth’s director of parks and community programs, said a public education campaign would be launched to inform residents and visitors of the new requirements.

The campaign would include new signs, email blasts and informational content on both the town website and community television channel, she said.

Walking her two border collies at Community Park recently, Joy Elliott of Portland, said she could adapt to the new leashing requirements, but said she’s worried that if people don’t comply then dogs may be banned from the town’s public parks all together.

Elliot walks her dogs at Community Park every day and said she’s never experienced a problem with other dog owners or with people who are afraid of or don’t want to be around dogs.

In materials provided to the Town Council before its March 27 meeting, D’Ascanio said closing the River Point Conservation Area to dogs would “provide people who fear dogs a place to go where they won’t encounter pets and also protect one of our highest value wildlife properties.”

It was in January 2016 that the town first began talking about imposing new rules relating to dogs on public lands.

The discussion was motivated in part by newly implemented restrictions in surrounding communities that banned or limited dog access, which Falmouth officials feared would lead to a rash of dog owners bringing their canines to town for off-leash time.

In addition, there was some concern expressed by residents about dog owners not picking up after their pets and unleashed dogs causing problems for other dogs or people who are afraid of or not comfortable around dogs.

But last year Robert Shafto, the town’s open space ombudsman, said these issues didn’t present “a massive problem” adding that most pet owners in town are responsible.

Under current ordinances, dog owners are required to pick up after their pets and most of the public lands in town also have a carry in, carry out rule for trash.

D’Ascanio said the new rules being considered for dogs this spring did not include any changes to the issues around sanitation and said that was something town staff would tackle separately.

In drafting the new rules the town committees charged with making the changes said several ideals were kept in mind: people need places in town to walk their dogs, walking dogs is good for both dogs and their owners, all parks and public lands trail users should feel safe, and uncontrolled dogs can have a negative impact on people, other dogs and wildlife.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

Although Falmouth has a carry-in, carry-out policy for trash, bags of dog waste have been left at the Community Park trailhead over the course of the winter.

Edited April 17, 2017, to clarify that dogs must be on a leash between April 1 and Sept. 30 at three public properties.