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Scarborough Town Council to appoint committee on dog issues after overwhelming repeal of leash law

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Scarborough Town Council to appoint committee on dog issues after overwhelming repeal of leash law

SCARBOROUGH — Town councilors Wednesday agreed to form an ad-hoc committee to consider animal control issues after the overwhelming repeal Tuesday of the town-wide leash law they enacted Oct. 2.

At a Wednesday workshop convened less than 24 hours after the law was repealed by a vote of 2,880 to 1,059, councilors reached a consensus that a committee is needed to discuss how the town will reconcile federal demands for wildlife conservation with residents' desire for canine recreation.

The size and composition of the committee were not determined, but Town Manager Tom Hall offered to draft an order for councilors to consider at their Dec. 18 meeting.

With 73 percent of the voters who cast ballots Dec. 3 opposed to a law requiring dogs to be leashed on all town properties, the Animal Control Ordinance was returned to its Oct. 1 form, with no leash restrictions except on town beaches from 5 p.m. to sunset, June 15 through Sept. 15. Dogs are also banned on town beaches from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. on those dates.

But those restrictions may not be enough to satisfy officials at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, who hold the town at fault for the July 15 killing of a piping plover on Pine Point Beach by an unleashed dog.

The agency initially proposed fining the town $12,000, reduced to $500 in a consent agreement negotiated by Hall in September. The agreement also required the town to enact suitable protections for endangered species, to create a "piping plover coordinator" to monitor habitats for the next five years, and to increase education efforts to protect the birds. The agreement was signed and the reduced fine paid last month.

The Fish & Wildlife Service has the option to re-open the agreement and assess the original fine, but Hall said he does not expect that to happen, despite the results of Tuesday's referendum.

“I think the ball is in our court in the near term,” he said, on the assumption actions taken by April 1 should satisfy the agency.

April 1 to Aug. 31 is the federal regulators' estimated time frame for the piping plover nesting season. Before the leash law was enacted, councilors considered requiring dogs to be leashed on town beaches during that period.

Hall said it would probably take three council meetings to discuss and enact any new ordinance revisions. He suggested the committee should have its recommendations ready by the middle of January 2014.

Determining whether a committee should look only at ways to avert a reimposed fine, or consider the entire issue of where off-leash dogs should be allowed, was not settled Wednesday.

Councilor Jean-Marie Caterina said the first priority should be piping plover protection.

“It is the one where we are under the hammer,” she said.

Councilor Bill Donovan, who was not in office when the leash law was passed by a 5-2 vote, favored the least restrictive measures, but worried the federal government might even move to close beaches in order to protect endangered species.

“Why would we ever let anyone else take control of our destiny?” he asked.

Council Chairman Richard Sullivan Jr., who was chairman of the Ordinance Committee that presented leash law revisions to councilors last summer, agreed piping plovers should be the first priority of the committee. But he expressed concern that discussions about the ordinance would interrupt budget deliberations next year.

There was no public comment in the hour-long workshop, but in the ensuing meeting, repeal supporters said they welcomed the chance for a town-wide discussion on dogs, birds and beaches.

“We got here because we stopped listening to each other and dug in our heels,” Holmes Road resident Liam Somers said. Somers was a frequent critic of any revision of the animal control ordinance because the July 15 incident was only the second recorded instance in a decade of a plover being killed by a dog.

Katy Foley, who organized the petition drive for a referendum and led Dog Owners of Greater Scarborough, the political action committee created to repeal the ordinance changes, cautioned councilors against making assumptions about the intent of the 73 percent of voters who favored repeal.

Foley has said she understands some restrictions on dogs are needed and some residents are legitimately scared of loose dogs. DOGS members also researched other ways to balance the rights of dog owners with wildlife protection, and she said they are eager to share what they learned.

In other business Wednesday, councilors accepted $7,000 in donations to the Fire Department from Prout's Neck residents Michael and Nina Zilkha.

The couple lived next door to the home on 29 Winslow Homer Road that was destroyed by an early morning fire Nov. 9, and were grateful firefighters protected their home.

The money will be used to buy a new thermal imaging camera for the Black Point Fire Station, and combined with a $500 donation from the P.W. Sprague Foundation to buy a trailer for hauling a Fire Department all-terrain vehicle.

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