Harpswell's new dog task force has until Nov. 1 to establish Mitchell Field rules

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HARPSWELL — A task force created to address concerns about off-leash dogs at Mitchell Field has until Nov. 1 to recommend new rules for the former U.S. Navy fuel depot. 

The Board of Selectmen earlier this month held a public hearing on the issue, which centers on potential restrictions on dogs running at-large at the 119-acre facility. Mitchell Field has become popular with dog owners, many of whom use the facility’s running trails and fields to exercise their pets.

But some residents say Mitchell Field’s popularity with dog owners is turning off other potential users, who are either afraid of being jumped on or bitten by the animals. Some have also complained that owners aren’t cleaning up after their pets, especially in the winter.

At the time of the public hearing, town officials were unable to provide statistics on bites or incidents involving dogs at Mitchell Field, leading some dog owners to argue that new restrictions were being pushed by a few influential members of the Mitchell Field Implementation Committee. 

Nonetheless, the Board of Selectmen last week voted to form a new task force to tackle the problem. The task force will have between five and seven members, including the town’s animal control officer, an ex-officio voting member and at least one member from the Mitchell Field committee. Select Chairman Jim Henderson said Tuesday that the board will determine the committee’s membership by the end of the summer.

Henderson acknowledged that there’s some question as to how widespread the problem at Mitchell Field is, but added that there are a number of people who are either intimidated or concerned by the prevalence of dogs there.  

The committee will be charged with developing new rules for Mitchell Field, potentially including restricting off-leash hours or creating a fenced-off area for dogs. 

During the June 11 public hearing, dog owners said that off-leash hours could leave some owners unable to use Mitchell Field, while a fenced area would not allow people to run with their dogs on the facility’s trail system. 

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

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

So far the issue is far less acrimonious than the one that has emerged in South Portland, where passions have prompted a referendum on whether to ban dogs from Willard Beach for six months of the year. The referendum follows a nearly two-year process that yielded new restrictions at Willard, where dog owners and non-owners have clashed over beach sanitation and canines running at large.

South Portland adopted new rules May 1 limiting off-leash dogs to two, two-hour time slots in the morning and evening. The rules have done little to settle the dispute. 

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