Falmouth eyes restricting dogs on public land

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FALMOUTH — As a result of new or altered ordinances in surrounding communities, town officials want to ensure public places don’t go to the dogs.

The Land Management and Acquisitions Committee and the Parks and Community Programs Advisory Committee are working on recommendations for revisions to pet policies on public lands to send to the Town Council.

At a Jan. 19 public forum, Ted Asherman, chairman of LMAC, said the rules and recommendations are especially important since Falmouth shares an animal control officer with Yarmouth and Cumberland.

In 2012, the Yarmouth Town Council banned dogs from Sandy Point Beach during the summer. In 2014, Cumberland approved an ordinance limiting the number of dogs a person could walk at one time, and limits the time and place a dog can be off-leash on public land.

Scarborough placed leash restrictions for dogs on beaches in 2014 after an off-leash dog killed an endangered piping plover. Portland has a full-time park ranger to ensure pet owners follow the rules. And Cape Elizabeth is looking into policy changes for dogs on the Greenbelt Trails system.

According to the town’s code of ordinances on the use of parks and public places, dogs must be on a leash during public activities and events. Dogs are allowed to be off-leash on trails and other designated areas as long as they are “within voice command.” The ordinance says pets cannot harass or disturb others on the trails or damage trail property.

The ordinance also says the pet owner must remove any feces left by the pet, which has been an issue. Asherman said dog waste is frequently left on the trails, or worse, put into plastic bags and left at the trail-heads.

“It’s a given we are going to address our ordinances,” he said.

Asherman said there are several assumptions that need to be made.

The first is that people need a place to walk their pets. The second is that people should feel safe on parks and public land, and someone who is afraid of being attacked by a dog might decide not to use the trails. Finally, uncontrolled animals can have a negative impact on people, other pets and wildlife.

“Most towns around us have more stringent rules,” Asherman said, which has created an “influx of people” coming in, which needs to be addressed.

It is ultimately up to the Town Council to decide what, if any, action will be taken.

But the discussions about possible ordinance revisions raises the question: have there actually been problems involving pets in town, outside of the obvious sanitation issues?

Well, yes and no.

Bob Shafto, the town’s open space ombudsman, said at the Jan. 19 forum that these efforts would help “minimize the problems we’re experiencing,” but not get rid of the problem.

He said there have been cases of dogs jumping on and/or biting people, as well as loose dogs running up to people on trails or in hunting or conservation areas. But, he added, most pet owners in town are responsible.

“It’s not a massive problem, but it does happen,” Shafto said.

Falmouth Police Lt. John Kilbride on Jan. 26 said his department has not received many calls about problems with pets on trails or in parks. He said in 2015 there were “probably less than five” dog bites reported, and most of those did not occur on parks or trails. He said most of the bites involved bikers or joggers passing too close to a dog.

“Nothing really grievous with dog bites,” Kilbride said.

Shafto also said Falmouth’s properties have become destinations for commercial dog walkers.

Asherman said the goal of the ordinance would be to have balance “so everyone can enjoy” the properties.

At the Jan. 19 forum, nearly 30 participants who attended had a chance to weigh in with a number of possible suggestions. The town also received almost 20 emailed comments from residents on the issue.

A summary following the meeting found nearly everyone agreed that better signage at trail heads and kiosks in the trails would help. Likewise, most people thought improved communications between the town and pet owners regarding the ordinance was appropriate.

However, most in attendance did not want to see a measure to limit the number of dogs that can be walked by one person.

Asherman said they will take the feedback they received and go over it, but also said there will be plenty of opportunities for the public to weigh in again.

“This likely isn’t going to just drift quietly away,” Asherman said.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Larry Miller, a resident of both Falmouth and New Hampshire, leashes his dogs in preparation for a walk Jan. 23 through Pine Grove Park in Falmouth.

An off-leash dog sniffs around in the snow at Pine Grove Park in Falmouth on Jan. 23.

Larry Miller leads his leashed dogs on one of the trails in Pine Grove Park in Falmouth.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.