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Friction continues as Scarborough beach dog rules evolve

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Friction continues as Scarborough beach dog rules evolve

SCARBOROUGH — As the first summer with new leash laws and a beach monitoring program comes to a close, the Canine Education and Enforcement Committee is prepared to make recommendations for improving the welfare of dogs and endangered birds on town beaches.

Over the course of five meetings this summer, the seven-member ad-hoc committee reviewed tag programs for dogs, researched the feasibility of dog parks in town, created signs and education materials, and oversaw the new piping plover beach monitoring program. 

The panel also worked to ease a transition to the new leash laws for dogs on beaches, which have divided dog owners and beach-goers for several months.

But tensions on the beach continue.

"Scarborough is not going to earn their dog-friendly badge," committee member Cheryl Larou said.

The town began changing its animal control ordinance after an incident last summer, when an off-leash dog killed an endangered piping plover and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service served the town with a suggested $12,000 fine.

In response, councilors enacted a ban on off-leash dogs that was struck down by a nearly 3-1 margin in a December referendum. Councilors then formed an ad-hoc committee to craft a new animal control ordinance to satisfy dog owners and better protect the endangered birds on town beaches.

The new law passed in May, despite heavy opposition from local dog owner group Dog Owners of Greater Scarborough.

The latest committee, formed by the Town Council on April 2, voted unanimously Aug. 26 (with committee member Liam Somers absent) for recommendations it will present to the council.

The committee recommends the council begin the process to de-list Ferry and Western beaches as USFWS essential habitats for piping plovers, because neither area had any piping plover nests this year.

De-listing the beaches would give the town a "safeguard against future holdups" on dredging projects, which happened this spring, the committee said.

It also recommends the town request to add the small private beaches on the north and south ends of Scarborough Beach to the essential habitat listing, because there were nesting plovers there this season.

The committee also recommends the council remove the new restricted areas at Pine Point and Higgins beaches. 

The restricted areas on public beaches were created in the new animal control ordinance as boundaries for the endangered plovers during their nesting season, which begins April 1.

This year, piping plovers nested both inside the restricted area at Pine Point and outside the area, closer to Old Orchard Beach. Only the nests outside the restricted area had successful fledglings.

In the case of Higgins Beach, birds were successful. But committee members found the restricted area boundaries, from Champion Street to the river, in addition the boundaries set by USFWS, were overly complex for beach-goers and monitors. They also found the restricted area was hard to enforce at low tide. 

The committee agreed signs indicating new restricted dates and times for dogs on beaches are adequately displayed, but found the wording of new rules unclear, especially about winter hours, where dogs are allowed all day but must be leashed from 1-3 p.m.

Rather than buying new signs, the committee recommends putting a sticker over signs after Labor Day to display winter restrictions.

The committee recommended the town not implement a tag system for dogs or pursue a town dog park, mainly because of start-up and maintenance costs, as well as added complexity for dog owners. 

Committee members and town officials felt the beach monitoring program, instituted this May by new town piping plover coordinator Ryan Wynne, was successful. But they suggested several tweaks to the volunteer program, such as a code of conduct for volunteers with more clearly outlined expectations, and more training.

They also added grounds for termination from the volunteer program to the code of conduct, because committee members had heard from a handful of beach-goers throughout the summer alleging they had been harassed by beach monitors on Higgins Beach.

Except for some expected speed bumps that accompany any new ordinance, Police Chief Robbie Moulton and Animal Control Officer Christopher Creps told committee members the year was successful.

Town officials handed out plenty of warnings, but only fined five people for disobeying the ordinance. They said most warnings were necessary in the period from May 15 to June 15, when dogs were previously allowed on the beach all day. 

Creps and Moulton agreed the beach monitor program was a big part of the ordinance's successful enforcement, although volunteers could not assess fines.

"(The volunteers) were really proactive," Creps said.

Piping plover coordinator Wynne agreed. According to Maine Audubon's final tally, Scarborough beaches fledged eight birds this year and the state total was 97, Maine Audubon's third-highest year in their recorded history for the endangered birds. 

Despite a successful summer for plovers, some committee members, most of whom are also members of DOGS, felt tensions persisted on the beach with the new ordinance.

"It's made hard feelings between people," Pammela Rovner said. "It's really done nothing except negative."

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or scarignan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.