Leash law opponents convince Cumberland council to take more time

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CUMBERLAND — Residents packed the Town Hall Council Chambers Monday evening to oppose a proposed town code amendment requiring dogs to be leashed on public lands.

After nearly two hours of discussion, the Town Council unanimously tabled the proposal a second time, for another look by the Ordinance Committee.

The amendment – previously discussed by the council April 28 – would restrict people who have dogs on public land to no more than two of them under voice control; any more would have to be kept on leashes.

Town-owned lands include the Twin Brook Recreation Area, the Town and Rines forests, and the Val Halla Golf Course and Recreation Center.

But new language that went from the Ordinance Committee to the full council for the first time Monday tightened the proposed restriction. Voice command for up to two dogs would be allowed from 6-9 a.m. and 7 p.m. to closing, while all dogs would have to be on leashes no more than 15 feet long from 9 a.m.-7 p.m.

No more than two dogs could be under the control of a single owner at a time while on public property, according to the proposed language.

Town Manager Bill Shane has said many residents have called town councilors on the subject, “sharing numerous encounters with dogs at the parks and demanding some action so everyone can enjoy the parks again.”

“As surrounding area towns have become more restrictive toward dogs in their own parks, we have had an increase in complaints at our own parks,” Shane added.

But the sentiment councilors heard Monday was overwhelmingly in favor of avoiding dog restrictions on public lands. Many speakers noted that they already pick up after their dogs and keep them under control, and councilors acknowledged that most people in the room probably were vigilant.

Still, the situations in which dog waste is left behind, or dogs bother other park patrons, must be considered, councilors said.

“I enjoy dogs; I know dogs,” Council Chairman Bill Stiles said. “It’s a shame that we have come to where we are because of a few people who really don’t consider other peoples’ rights in what goes on. And what we’re trying to do here tonight is come up with a compromise that sort of takes care of that.”

He noted that several people have spoken to him about “getting run over on trails while they were running. I know of two people who said they were bit or nipped. So those people are out there.”

Councilor Shirley Storey-King, who serves on the Twin Brook Advisory Committee, said dogs are a “perennial issue” there. The town also received complaints about dogs at Val Halla this winter, she added.

“I know that people don’t always follow the guidelines, so our attempt at making an ordinance has been to make this something more enforceable,” she explained.

Research determined that two-thirds of Cumberland residents do not have a dog, Storey-King said.

“We have 996 dogs in Cumberland, and I’m guessing half of their people are in the room,” she added, prompting some laughter.

The councilor added that those in favor of the ordinance “are in the minority as far as people that we’ve heard from. But I would say that to disagree with such a substantial group would be scary. I wouldn’t want to come up here and say ‘I’m all in favor of this ordinance; I think dogs should be banned from everywhere.'”

Councilor George Turner said the council has received “a number” of letters from people who do not go to parks because of the number of dogs they encounter.

Ben Caswell of Conifer Ridge Road said the majority of people he has seen in parks are those with dogs. He opposed the restricted times of day for voice command and, when asked by Stiles what times he would prefer, responded, “I would suggest a time that I don’t have to go out and walk the dog with my light.”

Caswell acknowledged that some control over park use is necessary. He noted that he takes his dog off-leash away from other people, and picks the remote trails for walks.

“I don’t want to go where there’s a soccer game,” Caswell said. His dog “sees the ball moving, and he sees kids running, and he’s going to go after the ball, or he’s going to get excited. That’s when I put my dog on a leash, no matter how well behaved he is. And I think that’s easy to police.”

Resident Bill Black said “people need to be proactive in self-policing, and also pointing out to other users when there are problems.”

Phyllis Chinlund said she has walked her golden retriever at Twin Brook for a long time, and has been unaware of issues there except for large groups of dogs brought there by dog walkers.

“Although these groups have not disturbed me personally, I can understand why they would be threatening, and it seems reasonable to restrict them in some way,” Chinlund said.

She suggested some guidelines be formed that in part require park users to leash their dogs when school groups are running on the trails, or reel them in when small children, the elderly and people without dogs are nearby.

Wildwood neighborhood resident Nancy Savage Marcus, who is a Twin Brook dog walker, proposed a solution that drew some interest.

“If you must impose some restrictions, would it be possible to make them more balanced for both sides?,” she asked. “So that maybe half of the day at Twin Brook, dogs were allowed to be off leash, and half of the day they had to be on leash, and then vice versa at Rines, for instance.”

That way, people could walk their dogs off leash at Twin Brook in the morning, and at Rines Forest in the afternoon, and those who wished not to encounter off-leash dogs could go to Rines in the morning and Twin Brook in the afternoon, she explained.

Councilors may discuss the proposal again next month.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.