Portland Parks Commission hits ‘paws’ on Baxter Woods leash law

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PORTLAND — It will be at least June before the 12-member Parks Commission weighs in on a proposed leash law for Baxter Woods.

In the meantime, Parks, Recreation & Facilities Deputy Director Ethan Hipple said he will look at ways to protect the bird sanctuary and address safety concerns raised by some users of the park at 555 Stevens Ave.

“We understand for the immediate neighbors there is definitely an impact,” Hipple said April 4 during a stroll through the 32-acre park, hours before commissioners met to discuss his request.

The proposed leash rule requires City Council approval and stems in part from a Forest and Wildlife Habitat Management Plan written for the city by Robert R. Bryan of Harpswell-based Forest Synthesis LLC.

“Because the Baxter deed requires that the city maintain Baxter Woods for recreational use and as a sanctuary for wild birds, the city should require that dogs be leashed,” the report concludes.

Baxter Woods was donated to the city about 70 years ago by former Gov. Percival Baxter, in memory of his father, former Mayor James Baxter.

Bryan noted the park is also threatened by invasive plants and pests that are a danger to hemlock trees in particular. His report recommends developing plans to monitor and control the threats.

The report also recommends cutting down Norway maples at the Forest Avenue entrance and closing some smaller park trails.

This is the second time in five years the city has considered the leash law, and the second time there has been significant opposition.

Supporters of a leash rule are concerned about dogs running at large, and include local teachers who said students using Baxter Woods as an outdoor classroom have been frightened.

Hipple’s walk in park, however, also produced several users who disagree with the need for leashes.

“This is not just dogs socializing, this is people socializing,” Kerri Nicholas said as his dog played with a half dozen others.

Mark Hamilton said he was still neutral on the rule, but prefers walking his dog Arda in the park to riding over to the dog park at Quarry Run, off Ocean Avenue.

“I enjoy letting her run; it is great to exhaust her in the morning,” he said. While Arda may bark at some people, Hamilton said there have been no bad encounters in the park.

“This is what Gov. Baxter would have wanted,” Antonia Medd said asLucca, her black Lab, frollicked. “I have walked in these woods for 30 years.”

Kevin Raiten said his dog Paytah, certified as an epilepsy seizure and response dog, needs the space to socialize with other dogs. He suggested the city consider certain hours when dogs must be leashed, instead of requiring them all the time.

Hipple noted the city does have other parks where dogs are allowed off leash, including the open space behind Evergreen Cemetery, across Stevens Avenue from Baxter Woods, although he is keeping the opposition to leash rules in mind.

“We are looking at possible alternatives,” he said, “and whether those could address the safety and bird sanctuary issues.”

David Harry can be reached at 780-9092 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland resident Mark Hamilton plays with his dog Arda, left, on April 4 in Baxter Woods as city official Ethan Hipple watches. Hipple has advocated requiring dogs be kept on leash in the park.

Mornings are canine play time in Baxter Woods in Portland, where opponents of a proposed leash law say their dogs need the time to socialize.

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