SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council is poised to tighten rules governing dogs at Willard Beach.
The council reached consensus Monday on a several policy changes: the summer hours that dogs are allowed on the beach, a three-tier fine schedule, a strengthened definition of voice control and requiring dog owners to carry a leash at all times.
The council deadlocked, however, on whether to expand summer restrictions by a month and whether to create a standing committee to oversee and mediate disagreements between dog owners and beachside residents.
Councilor Jim Soule, who was not at Monday night’s workshop, could be the swing vote, but could not be reached for comment.
City Manager Jim Gailey said the council would likely take up the policy changes no sooner than the third week in January. Gailey did not know whether the council would spend another workshop fine-tuning the changes, or if councilors would go straight to a meeting.
Council consensus was reached Monday night only after veteran councilors expressed frustration and disappointment over the way the issue has dogged the council for more than 20 years. In years past, complaints would typically surface in the spring, and diminish over the summer. But this year brought increased and sustained tension between dog owners, residents and councilors.
Councilor Jim Hughes said he has no hope that a positive, lasting resolution will be reached.
“Whatever we do, we’re going to be back here doing it again,” Hughes said. “There are two warring groups and we’re keeping both moving and boiling. The whole thing has been a very disappointing experience for me.”
Newly elected councilors, however, argued that the council is moving toward positive reforms.
“We’re beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Councilor Thomas Coward said.
There was strong support for reducing morning dog hours by an hour, allowing them only from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. instead of 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., a change only Mayor Tom Blake opposed. The change would address the complaints of at least one beachside resident, who has said he wakes to the sounds of owners calling their dogs. The change would also be consistent with the city’s noise ordinance.
At the same time, the council proposed allowing evening dog hours, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. The proposed change would effectively give dogs an extra hour on the beach every day.
There was also strong consensus for strengthening the definition of voice control to require dogs to immediately respond to their owners’ commands. The animal control officer, who would be at the beach during dog hours, would be have the authority to make owners demonstrate control.
For those found in violation, the council proposes fines of $100 for the first offense, $250 for the second and $500 for the third.
The council is also expected to prohibit off-leash dogs at Mill Creek Park, but is not expected to enact further restrictions at other parks — Hinckley, Bug Light and Spring Point.
Left unresolved, however, is a proposal to extend the summer restrictions into April. Dogs are currently allowed on the beach at all times from May 1 to Sept. 30, but the council was deadlocked on whether to restrict access in April.
“April is the problem month,” Councilor Linda Boudreau said.
The council was also deadlocked on a proposal to create a standing committee to oversee dog use on the beach. Supporters said a standing committee would allow a forum, other than council meetings, for people on both sides of the issue to discuss problems. That committee could address incidents on an ongoing basis and would report to the council.
Blake said a standing committee would free the council to address more important issues throughout the city.
“Getting a group actively working together is going to be positive for this community,” Blake said. “I see this as allowing us to do greater things.”
Opponents, however, worried that creating another committee would would ignore the work of the task force, which spent last summer studying dog-related issues at the beach and issued some of the recommendations now before the council. They also feared the council would be perceived by the community as dodging the issue.
“People talk about that all the time,” Beecher said. “If you don’t want to make a decision, form a committee.”
Boudreau, who has been on the council for more than 16 years, said she is finished with the dog issue, which has taken up not only councilors’ time, but the time of paid city staffers like Assistant City Manager Erik Carson, who has been dealing with it since he came to the city less than a year ago.
“It is something that does not lend itself to a council form of government,” Boudreau said. “I very seldom in my life say I’m done with something, but I’m done. I’m done with issue.”
Boudreau suggested the council put a referendum before residents to let them decide. “I feel like we will vote on something tonight and the e-mails will start tomorrow,” she said. “Go to referendum and be done with it.”
Beecher and Hughes were not opposed to idea, but Smith, Coward and Blake argued that a referendum would only divide the community.
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