2015-01-30 / Front Page

Dire warning on dogs

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

KENNEBUNKPORT — An attempt to update an animal control ordinance that’s 40 years old could bring something new to Kennebunkport — fines from the federal government.

That was the word of caution issued by Laura Minich Zitske, the piping plover and least tern project manager for Maine Audubon, at the Jan. 22 meeting of the Kennebunkport Board of Selectmen.

At that session, selectmen received a draft version of a new animal control ordinance, written by Sea Road resident Barbara Barwise. It’s designed to update the town’s leash law, largely untouched since 1976, while also incorporating specific rules for Goose Rocks Beach, as proposed by the town’s beach advisory committee.

Selectmen voted unanimously last week to pass the two proposals along to the town attorney, to be merged into one document, with an eye toward presenting it to voters on the town meeting warrant in June.

However, based on recent events in Scarborough, Minich Zitske suggested the town also seek initial input from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In July 2013 a plover chick was mauled to death on Pine Point Beach in Scarborough, and, because local ordinances allowed dogs to run off-leash during the nesting season, the feds levied a $12,000 fine against the town. That bill was later knocked down to $500 in return for a host of concessions, including the creation of a “piping plover coordinator” position to oversee education and enforcement of a new leash law. Scarborough’s yearlong battle between dog lovers and plover protectors resulted in a significant curtailment of the hours when dogs could run free on town beaches. However, because some off-leash time was preserved, both state and federal officials took a dim view to the final compromise hammered out by the Scarborough Town Council, Minich Zitske said.

“That legal battle is not over,” she said. “The situation is unresolved. Having dogs off leash, even for an hour or two, during the piping plover season, is exposing the town to significant threat. There is a potential for a violation of the Endangered Species Act that the town could be responsible for.

“I‘m not here representing a regulatory agency,” Minich Zitske said. “I just want to make sure you are all aware of this.”

Minich Zitske suggested the best way for Kennebunkport to insulate itself from federal fines would be to adopt rules similar to its neighbors. In Wells, she said, dogs must be leashed at all times when on beaches during those months when a migrating shorebird from the threatened and endangered lists might be present, while in Ogunquit dogs are banned entirely during that time.

According to Minich Zitske four of 15 nesting plover pairs observed by Maine Audubon volunteers last year were found at Goose Rocks Beach. However, that was a light year, she said, given nine nesting pair seen there in 2012. Generally, onequarter to one-third of all piping plovers counted in Maine each year are seen nesting on Goose Rocks Beach, she said.

And, because plovers can’t read signs, it’s far easier to reign in dog owners, Minich Zitske said.

“Even at four days old, these birds can move one mile,” she said. “They don’t stay within fenced-in areas. Dogs, as much as I love them, they are a threat to plovers and terns.”

Even so, Barwise said that, despite the recent controversy in Scarborough, her goal was neither to defend dog rights nor to create a plover safe zone. She took on the ordinance update, she said on Monday, simply because it was time.

“I’m just trying to play housecleaning and meet both sides,” she said. “I don’t come down on a side. I believe in protecting the plover, but also, after 50 years of running a dog on the beach without incident, I would like to see a little more freedom.”

Barwise’s update is similar to the 1976 original in that it bans dogs from being within 200 feet of any area fenced off for plover nests. However, it does strike a requirement that bans all canines other than “seeing-eye dogs” from all beaches in Kennebunkport between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., from June 15 through Sept. 15. Instead, it leaves a space for specific beach exemptions and simply requires that an animal be under “voice control” and/or “sight control” of its owner at all times, and that it be kept on a leash when on town streets and sidewalks.

Although the ordinance applies to all animals — defined as “every living, sentient creature not a human being” — it is largely written with dogs in mind, Barwise said.

Because the new version strikes mention of zoning districts, making it apply townwide, it eliminates a few seemingly nonsensical applications. For example, because the farm and forest, free enterprise, and village residential east zones are not mentioned in the original ordinance, Kennebunkport’s animal control officer could not cite a dog owner for letting his or her animal run free on streets in those areas.

Perhaps worse, because no exception was made for private property, the current ordinance, under which it is illegal for dogs to run unleashed at any time in the town’s nine remaining zones, could draw a $25 fine for allowing a dog to be off leash on the property of its owner, even if that lot is fenced in.

“You can’t legally play ball with your dog in your yard because no dog is allowed to run off leash in any one of those zones,” Barwise said, adding, “I don’t know how many of you have tried to play ball with your dog on a leash. It doesn’t work.”

Barwise’s proposal defines what counts as voice and sight control and makes it clear that if a dog barks repeatedly, it is not considered under control of any kind, whether or not it returns to its owner immediately upon command. The draft also ups the fine for violations to $50 for a first offense, $100 for a second, and $250 for each subsequent offense.

The special rules for Goose Rocks Beach, approved by the beach advisory committee at its Jan. 15 meeting, include provisions for when a dog must be leashed, when it can run free, and when it cannot be on that particular beach at all.

If folded into Barwise’s main ordinance proposal as drafted, the Goose Rocks rules would require dogs to be leashed at all times from April 1 to Sept. 30. They would only be able to run free during those months from 6 to 7:30 a.m. Additionally, dogs would be banned from the beach between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. from June 1 to Sept. 30 Also, dogs would have to be leashed from noon until 2 p.m. from Oct. 1 to March 31, months when they can otherwise remain offleash during daylight hours.

“These rules only apply to Goose Rocks. We are not empowered to make decisions on any other beach,” said committee Chairman Bob Sherman.

Barwise said she cut specific limits on other beaches in town because all others either have no history of plover nesting, or else are on private property.

After the animal control ordinance is re-drafted by the town attorney to incorporate the Goose Rocks provisions, it will undoubtedly trigger strong feelings, similar to efforts to regulate dog access to beaches in Scarborough and, before that, on Willard Beach in South Portland. After all, says Sherman, strong opinions already have been expressed along the entire spectrum at the committee level, from those who want unlimited dog access to those who want to ban them entirely, since work began in November to draft new regulations specific to Goose Rocks.

“The dog issue has unquestionably been the most difficult, multi-faceted issue that we’ve taken on in the two-plus years since we’ve been in existence,” Sherman said. “Our committee tried to do the best that we could for Goose Rocks, to accommodate as many people as possible, but these proposals are not going to make everybody completely happy.

The best that can be hoped for, Sherman surmised, is a leash law that 80 percent of Kennebunkport residents feel they can live with.

“In fact, I said at our most recent meeting, if anybody is 100 percent happy, could you please let me know and I haven’t heard from anybody,” Sherman said. “So, I think we achieved that goal.

Return to top