SOUTH PORTLAND — Residents on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected an ordinance that would have eliminated year-round, off-leash access for dogs on Willard Beach and banned them completely for six months in the summer.
City Clerk Sue Mooney said that 63 percent, or 11,611, of the city’s 18,348 registered voters turned out Tuesday. At one point, the city ran out of ballots – as it did in the 2004 Presidential election – and had to reprint 1,000 more, she said.
The unofficial vote was 6,770 to 4,377, with about 60 percent of the 11,147 residents who cast ballots voting to keep existing rules that were instituted in the spring on the recommendation of a task force. Those rules allow 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 was opposed by Share Willard Beach, a political action committee formed by the South Portland Dog Owners Association. The group conducted a vigorous door-to-door leaflet campaign to convince voters dog owners are stewards of the beach, cleaning up after their dogs as well as other people. The group also said the issue was a matter of fair access to a public space.
Share Willard Beach Spokesman Tom Ayres said he believes residents also opposed the ban because the existing beach rules that were instituted in the spring after a deliberative process have been working and provide equal access to a public space.
“I’m really surprised by the margin,” Ayres said. “Twenty-four hundred votes is a pretty strong mandate.”
In addition to a heavy ground campaign, Ayres said members worked the phones the week before, and even the night of the election.
The ordinance change was proposed by a group of residents called Save Willard Beach, led by former task force member and City Council candidate Gary Crosby, who lost his bid for the District 3 seat. The group complained of having to choose between avoiding the beach in the summer months and allowing their children to play in sand they said was contaminated with dog waste.
Crosby said he feels good knowing that residents throughout the city had a chance to vote on the dog issue and that, even though his group lost, the vote was not close.
“I did this so people could make a decision and they clearly made a choice,” Crosby said. “I would have preferred to have won, but I’m OK with losing, especially by this margin.”
Both sides said they hope the roughly 2,400-vote margin will be enough to put to rest the Willard Beach dog issue, which some say has plagued the city for the last 20 years.
“I think this should put the issue to bed for a while,” Crosby said.
“This should allow the city to deal with other issues facing the city that are more important,” Ayres said.
Residents also voted 6,841 to 3,373 to change the City Charter to allow the city to participate in the Maine State Municipal Bond’s Revolving Loan Program, which offers low- to no-interest loans to municipalities.
Voters will still have to approve by a citywide referendum any borrowing by the city. But, by a two-thirds vote of the council, the city can bypass the public bidding process for the bonds themselves.
The question was first placed on the ballot last June in an effort to get federal stimulus money being funneled through the bond bank.
Although 60 percent of residents voted 1,324 to 744 to approve the charter change in June, voter turnout was below the threshold to change the charter. Only 2,123 people cast ballots; 3,125 votes were needed.