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Leash law repeal headed to Scarborough voters

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Leash law repeal headed to Scarborough voters

SCARBOROUGH — By 8:15 Wednesday night, Lucky Lane resident Katy Foley said she was worn out and overwhelmed.

Two actions in four hours virtually guaranteed her petition to repeal a new leash law is headed for a referendum vote this year.

At around 4 p.m. Wednesday, Foley and members of Dog Owners of Greater Scarborough presented 2,872 signatures to Town Clerk Tody Justice, seeking a repeal of Animal Control Ordinance amendments passed by the Town Council on Oct. 2.

About four hours later, the Town Council deadlocked 3-3 on a vote to reconsider its Oct. 2 decision to enact the law. That means the leash law stands, although it remains unenforced.

Council Chairman Ron Ahlquist, who requested the new vote, was joined by Vice Chairwoman Judy Roy and Councilor Jessica Holbrook in voting for reconsideration. Councilors Ed Blaise, Kate St. Clair and James Benedict stood firm in support of the law and said they welcomed the referendum.

Councilor Richard Sullivan was absent.

It took less than two weeks to gather the signatures, 500 more than the 2,379 required to bring about the referendum. Once the legal number of signatures – based on 25 percent turnout of town voters in the 2010 gubernatorial election – are certified, councilors have 30 days to schedule a public hearing. The election must be held within 30 days after the hearing.

To validate the referendum, at least 2,379 voters must cast ballots in the special election.

As she announced the results of the petition drive outside Town Hall, Foley thanked the volunteers who helped gather signatures and the people who expressed themselves, even if they opposed the repeal drive.

Inside council chambers during the meeting, a public comment session lasting about 45 minutes showed wide support for letting the leash law stand so voters could decide whether to require dogs to be kept on leashes on all public land and beaches.

"It is time for the council to step aside and let this go to a vote,” said Holmes Road resident Liam Somers, a critic of initial council efforts to require dogs on town beaches to be leashed during piping plover nesting seasons.

The town-wide leash law was passed after St. Clair suggested it during the second reading of amendments that would have eliminated voice control for dogs on beaches from April 1 to Aug. 31.

Dogs had been allowed to be under voice control from sunrise to 9 a.m., June 15 through Sept. 15. From 9 a.m.-5 p.m., dogs were banned from town beaches on those dates, and were required to be leashed after 9 p.m.

But the killing of a piping plover on Pine Point Beach around 7 a.m. on July 15 by an unleashed dog owned by resident Rachel Speed accelerated council discussion about letting dogs loose on beaches during the summer.

Speed was not charged because Maine Game Warden Sgt. Tim Spahr said she cooperated with the investigation and her dog was legally allowed to be off leash at that time of day. The bird, considered a threatened and endangered species under state and federal standards, was near the water line when it was killed.

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took a different view of town culpability. It proposed a $12,000 fine against the town that was ultimately reduced to $500 when the town agreed to stiffen leash laws and hire a coordinator to gather data about the birds, beach visitors and dogs for the next five years.

The settlement, approved Oct. 2 by a 4-3 council vote, drew as much ire as the leash law.

Foley's sister, Suzanne Foley-Ferguson, a former town councilor, vowed any changes to the ordinance that would require leashing dogs during summer months would face a repeal effort.

King Street resident Pamela Rovner advised "don't let Fish and Wildlife tell Scarborough how to handle its own beaches.”

Ahlquist said he proposed reviewing the animal ordinance in the spring, months before the piping plover was killed, but asked for reconsideration Wednesday because the town-wide leash law goes too far.

Roy agreed, saying it had only been necessary to comply with terms of the agreement with USFWS. She and Holbrook said they were ready to send the amendments back to the Ordinance Committee of Sullivan, Benedict and St. Clair for more study, since it will be six months before piping plovers return to beaches.

But St. Clair, Blaise and Benedict opposed the reconsideration for various reasons.

“No way I am going to support a reconsideration of this,” St. Clair said. "I don't mind admitting when I make a mistake. I still feel in my gut it was the right thing to do.”

St. Clair said dogs could still be allowed unleashed on beaches in the "designated areas" that can be set aside in the ordinance, and said claims of a lack of dialogue about the leash law were unfounded.

"I'm embarrassed by some of the emails I have received in the last couple of weeks,” she said.

Blaise, who said he stopped walking his dog on Higgins Beach because there were so many other unleashed dogs, said he supported the town-wide leash law because it complies with the intent of the ordinance.

“I don't think voice control supports the purpose of the ordinance,” he said.

Benedict said the prospect of a delay in a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredging of the Scarborough River because of a lack of protection for threatened species on town beaches was his primary reason for opposing reconsideration.

He said he is concerned fishermen will not be able to get their boats out to sea unless the river is dredged this year.

Foley said the referendum will open the door to a more complete community discussion on how to share beaches and protect wildlife.

"I am proud of the work that has been done," she said. "A respectful dialogue is happening. I met amazing people on all sides of this issue and made many new friends. I believe we can approach this in a way that allows some time for all."

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.