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South Portland's Willard Beach: Seaside sandbox or litter box for dogs? Voters to decide

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South Portland's Willard Beach: Seaside sandbox or litter box for dogs? Voters to decide

SOUTH PORTLAND — On Election Day, residents will decide whether to severely limit dogs on Willard Beach.

The referendum facing voters on Nov. 3 would ban dogs from the beach from April 15 to Oct. 15 and only allow them between Oct. 16 and April 14 if they are leashed.

Existing law allows dogs to run off leash and under voice control on the beach from 6 a.m to 9 p.m. October through April, and from 7-9 a.m. and 7-9 p.m. May through September.

The referendum has produced two political action groups: Save Willard Beach, the proponents of the summer dog ban, and opponents Share Willard Beach, a group formed by the South Portland Dog Owner's Group. Both groups have placed signs throughout the city, each painting a starkly different picture of life on Willard Beach. 

Opponents of the dog ban have signs depicting a cute and furry golden retriever, who appears friendly and sitting at heel position; proponents of the ban have signs with photos of large packs of dogs and dogs defecating in the sand, juxtaposed by a small child playing in the sand. 

Proponents of the summer ban believe it is unsanitary for beach-goers, especially children, to lounge and play in the sand where dogs have urinated and defecated only hours before. But opponents argue that dog owners are generally responsible people, who not only pick up after their dogs, after other beach users who leave behind used condoms, used baby diapers and hypodermic needles.

Share Willard Beach spokesman Tom Ayres said the current ordinance, enacted by the City Council early this year, was the result of a deliberate process undertaken by a task force, which heard from people on both sides of the issue. The task force included a gastroenterologist, who told the committee that dog urine is sterile.  

If it ain't broke, he said, don't fix it. 

"We feel the current regulations are the result of a very fair and negotiated process and they have been proven to work by all accounts," Ayres said. "We feel the dog ban way oversteps the boundaries of fairness and sharing a public resource."

However, Save Willard Beach spokesman Gary Crosby, who served on the task force and is running for City Council, said the group never recommended adding evening hours for off-leash dog access; that provision was added by the City Council. He also contends the task force lost credibility, because the doctor who served on the task force owns a home near and walks his dog on Willard Beach.

"He loses all credibility with me when he says, and it's on record, that not only is it not unhealthy, but it can actually improve your immune system to play where dogs have been defecating," he said. "I just find that offensive and irritating, and common sense tells you that is wrong. Who is he to tell me I can go down there with my grandchildren and play where his dog has just got done crapping that morning." 

Save Willard Beach has raised $1,040 to support its campaign, while Share Willard Beach has raised nearly $6,000 from more than 200 contributors, 75 percent of whom are South Portland residents.

Ayres said Share Willard Beach has put up more than 200 lawn signs, including 14 large plywood signs at key intersections. It has also handed out about 4,000 hand cards and knocked on doors throughout the city. The waning days of the campaign will be spent calling prospective voters, he said.

Meanwhile, Save Willard Beach has staked more than 200 lawn signs, but many of those have been damaged. Last week, Crosby accused Share Willard Beach of vandalism, an allegation the dog group dismissed.  

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net