SOUTH PORTLAND — Only a week after the City Council reached a consensus on several changes to its policy allowing dogs on Willard Beach, a group fighting to ban dogs from the beach during the summer has submitted a referendum question that would let voters decide.
The proposed November referendum would ban dogs from the half-mile beach from April 15 to Oct. 15. Dogs would be allowed during the other months, but only if they are leashed.
The question is being proposed by members of Save Willard Beach, which was formed to balance the perceived influence of the South Portland Dog Owners Group.
Save Willard Beach member Gary Crosby said people he has spoken to support the effort to ban dogs from the beach; he predicted voters would approve the policy change.
“I feel confident we will win. We will win by a wide margin,” Crosby said. “I feel this is the right thing to do. It’s democracy in action.”
Crystal Goodrich, president of DOG, said a referendum would not resolve issues between beachside residents who disapprove of dogs and residents who walk their dogs on the beach. Goodrich said Crosby’s prediction may be a bit premature.
“My thinking is, let’s not get mad, let’s get active,” Goodrich said. “Let’s just do what we’ve been doing. Let’s have 300 people show up at meetings. Let’s let people know what this is all about – it’s about public access to public space.”
Instead, Goodrich said the council should continue with the process currently under way. One of the most effective recommendations being considered by the council, she said, is creating an oversight committee for Willard Beach. That would allow a forum for both sides to air their problems, she said, and the group could periodically report to the council, which could then take up more pressing city business.
“In Kennebunk, they have (an oversight committee) and it works great,” she said.
During the coming months, both groups are expected to wage a battle over public perception. Those seeking further restrictions will likely argue that allowing dogs on the beach is unhealthy and unsafe, while those supporting open access will argue that a few beachside residents are stoking fear to impose their will and create a private beach.
A citywide referendum has been the elephant in the room ever since the Willard Beach Task Force submitted its report and recommendations to improve rules and enforcement of dogs running off leash on the beach last summer.
The idea was first brought up by a Dog Owners Group attorney during a public hearing – an offhand remark that Save Willard Beach took as a challenge.
“They chose to challenge the wrong group,” Crosby said. “Before you make an offer like that, you’d better know who your competition is.”
Putting the issue in front of the voters was brought up at the last City Council workshop, where veteran councilors expressed frustration with the issue that has hounded them for, what some say, is 20 years. Veteran councilors said a referendum would solve the issue once and for all, but new councilors said a referendum would only further divide the community. Instead, newer councilors suggested establishing an oversight committee that would allow dog owners and non-dog owners alike a forum to express and solve their problems.
Among the recommendations the council is poised to move forward in January is increasing the number of hours dogs are allowed on the beach during the summer while also extending summer restrictions by a month. Rather than allow dogs between 6 and 9 a.m. from May through September, the proposed change would allow dogs only from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. from April through September.
Crosby said his group has been working on ordinance language for more than a month and the proposed policy changes to be taken up by the council had little to do with its initiative, submitted to the city clerk’s office on Dec. 26.
“The City Council can’t make a decision about this,” Crosby said, noting the proposed changes would put the city’s beach policy more in line with the state’s.
The proposed referendum is the result of frustration with the process undertaken by the beach task force, on which Crosby served as a member. The task force ruled that dog feces was not a health threat to beachgoers, despite published claims to the contrary.
The task force, however, ruled on the side of Dr. Douglas Howell, a gastroenterologist, who said that those conclusions aired on the side of caution and didn’t take into account the specific conditions at Willard Beach, with its dry, salt-water environment.
The group needs to gather just under 1,000 signatures, roughly 5 percent of the city’s registered voters, to move its ballot question forward.
The City Charter, however, states that the City Council would still have to take a formal vote within 60 days of receiving a signed petition, verified by the city clerk, for the question to appear on the ballot. The council has the power to change the wording of the question, or block the question from going to voters.
If voters decide to ban dogs from the beach during the summer months, then only the voters can repeal that rule, which would effectively remove the issue from the council’s purview.
Goodrich said she does not expect the Dog Owners Group to attempt to counter the Save Willard Beach referendum with one of its own. “It’s just very negative for our community,” she said.
City Manager Jim Gailey said the last citizen referendum in South Portland was the so-called “Proposition 2.5,” which in the late 1980s instituted a 3 percent tax cap. That tax cap, however, was repealed by voters after a couple of years, Gailey said.