Campaign to repeal leash law unchained in Scarborough
SCARBOROUGH — Foes of a newly enacted, but not-yet-enforced, leash law began a steady count to 2,379 this week.
That's the number of certified signatures needed to push the repeal from petition to ballot.
"I am feeling very confident, the energy is palpable," Katy Foley said Wednesday as she discussed the signature drive and a new political action committee seeking repeal of amendments to the Animal Control Ordinance passed Oct. 2 by a 5-2 Town Council vote.
The changes took the issue of unleashed dogs under "voice control" on town beaches and applied it to parks and athletic fields, by requiring all dogs be kept on leashes at all times of the year on public property. First offenders face a potential $100 fine.
Foley, who described herself as "the nonpolitical member of my family" (she is the sister of former Town Councilor Sue Foley-Ferguson) is now chairwoman of Dog Owners of Greater Scarborough, the political action committee and the person who took out the petition to return the ordinance to its former language.
The change went into effect at 12:01 a.m. Oct. 3.
But on Monday, Town Manager Tom Hall said it will not be enforced during the petition drive. If enough signatures are gathered by Oct. 22 and certified by Town Clerk Tody Justice, the ordinance cannot be enforced before a referendum is held.
Foley on Wednesday did not say how many signatures had been gathered so far, but said she was pleased at the early response outside Town Hall and at local businesses. Justice has said petition organizers should bring in at least 3,000 signatures as a hedge against invalidations.
Foley also cautioned ordinance foes that online repeal petitions that began appearing Monday are not part of the formal petition drive.
Beyond Town Hall, Foley said owners of Dog Paws Inn on Gorham Road and Oak Hill Gas & Convenience on U.S. Route 1 are among the businesses offering space to petition gatherers.
As the number of volunteers exceeded 50, Foley said staying organized was a challenge, because signature gatherers have to be residents, voters and present when people sign.
Kathy Bouchard stood outside Town Hall Monday afternoon, drawn to the effort she said because she believes the new leash law was enacted without proper discussion and citizen input.
"I was shocked it was put into place without going to the town first," she said.
A first time dog owner, Bouchard said she should be able to take her dogs to the beach and let them off leash after tourist season and the migration of endangered or threatened piping plovers.
Before the ordinance amendments passed, dogs were allowed off leash on beaches from Sept. 16 through June 14, and from sunrise-9 a.m. from June 15 through Sept. 16.
Foley was expecting to see voice control eliminated in the summer months, a change suggested after a dog killed a piping plover on Pine Point Beach on July 15. The chick was killed at the water line around 7 a.m., when voice control was permissible.
The broader leash law was introduced Oct. 2 by Councilor Kate St. Clair, who serves on the council ordinance committee. Her amendment passed 4-3, with council Chairman Ron Ahlquist, Vice Chairwoman Judy Roy and Councilor Jessica Holbrook opposed.
But Councilor Richard Sullivan, the chairman of the ordinance committee, said Monday that St. Clair was being unfairly criticized for offering the broader leash law he and Councilor James Benedict supported as ordinance committee members.
“Kate may have been taking the blunt of it because she read it," he said. "For everyone to blame Kate is wrong."
Sullivan said he is confident there is wider, quieter support for the leash law, based on emails, letters, phone calls and photos he has received from constituents worried about dogs allowed to run at large.
“The situation has gotten out of control, from what I have heard from residents,” he said.
Sullivan said the death of the plover and a potential $12,000 fine from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was a factor in amending the ordinance, despite some private offers to pay the fine. Councilors eventually approved a consent agreement with the agency by a 4-3 vote on Oct. 2.
Because the offers were discussed in executive sessions, Sullivan declined to say how they were considered.
"But there were stipulations," he said. "We cannot tie the town's hands that way."
Ultimately, in exchange for reducing the fine to $500, councilors approved an agreement calling for the creation of a 20-hour per week "piping plover coordinator" for the next five years, a "law enforcement presence" on town beaches, and distributing educational materials about plovers and their habitats to people who obtain dog licenses, beach permits and permits to ride horses on beaches.
The agency can reopen the agreement and reinstate the original $12,000 fine for cause, "including repeal or relaxation of the Animal Control Ordinance amendments."
Sullivan said he is confident the town could fight attempts to reopen the agreement, based in part on his conversations with town attorney Mary Costigan.
If the petition signatures are certified, councilors have 30 days to schedule a public hearing, and a referendum election must be held within 30 days after that. Besides a majority vote, a referendum to repeal the ordinance requires turnout of at least 25 percent of registered voters.
If the repeal effort succeeds, Sullivan said he would not seek more amendments to the Animal Control Ordinance.
"If it passes," he said, "the people of Scarborough (will) have made their voices clear."
Foley said she wants to avoid oversimplifying the issue.
"There is a perception out there that some people solely blame the council and that they are pushing a personal agenda. I would disagree," she said. "I don’t like how they handled it, but it has indeed been an extremely complex issue, going far deeper than dogs, plovers and people."