2017-06-02 / Front Page

Dogs will have their days at the beach

Selectmen make no changes to ordinance
By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — If dogs are going to have their time on Kennebunk beaches restricted, it’s going to take a citizens’ petition to do it. Following a May 11 public hearing attended by nearly 150 people, selectmen voted unanimously at their May 23 meeting to make no change to the town’s dog ordinance.

Currently, dogs are not allowed on public beaches in Kennebunk between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., from June 15 until Labor Day. And when on the beach in the early mornings and evenings, they must be under “voice control” if not on a leash.

But one resident created a stir starting in March with calls to increase the ban. Citing concerns over safety and sanitation, Surf Lane resident Gary John Fumicello has said that, as currently allowed, the public beaches in town amount to being “an an unmanned, unleashed dog park.”

“I love dogs, but there’s going to a time when somebody’s going to get hurt,” Fumicello said at the May 11 hearing before the town’s dog ordinance advisory committee.

At a special meeting May 17, the committee voted to first lean on stronger enforcement of rules already in place, by erecting more signs and increasing patrols by police officers, animal control agents, and volunteer monitors.

“If these steps do not prove fruitful, then the committee can assess whether changes to the ordinance should be made,” read the unanimous recommendation.

“A little bit of enforcement would go a long way,” committee chairman Cathy Connors said, citing a provision in the existing rules that say dog owners must have a leash with them, even when allowing dogs to roam free under voice control.

“If somebody was actually ticketed for that, then we would have an idea if any more steps need to be made,” she said.

But Selectman Ed Karytko questioned the cost of cracking down on surfside scofflaws.

“We ought to be realistic about that,” he said. “From what I know, the police department is up against the wall now as it is. I really don’t want to sugar coat it. We can get another police officer, but at $70,000 to $80,000, do we really want to do that?”

Still, the big issue most at the May 23 meeting agreed, is assessing just what counts as having a dog under voice control, thus allowing it to be off leash.

“I don’t think it makes sense to allow dogs on the beach if they can’t run free. Why walk your dog there on a leash when you can do that anywhere, but I don’t think it’s possible to realistically enforce voice control,” said Mike Hooper, a non-resident who nonetheless walks his dogs on Kennebunk beaches “at least six times a week.”

Dogs are “extraordinarily social animals” Hooper said, with that drive to say hello to people and, especially, other dogs, often taking precedence over a master’s voice, even among the best-trained pets.

Selectmen Shiloh Schulte agreed with that point.

“If they’re on voice control, their owners are not controlling them,” he said. “When I’m on the beach with my kids, some dog come up to us every single time, no exceptions.”

“This isn’t going to stop or solve the problems. There’s a far greater density of dogs and people on the beaches than there were 10 years ago and the beaches aren’t getting any bigger,” Schulte said. “We are going to have to find a way of handling and solving these problems and controlling our interactions between people and dogs on the beaches. Otherwise we are going to be coming back to this again and again.”

Selectman Blake Baldwin said trying to create a definition for “voice control” in the town dog ordinance might not necessarily solve anything either.

“One thing I am concerned about is the number of ordinances that are building up on our books that are effectively unenforceable,” he said, citing the town’s noise ordinance, which proclaims an undue decibel level has to persist for 15 minutes in the presence of a police officer in order to be actionable. That definition did him little good when awoken last week by a neighbor with an early-morning penchant for running a skill saw, Baldwin said.

“We create the impression that we have an environment where people are going to be free from annoyance or harm, or whatever, and, in many cases, these ordinances just don’t accomplish those purposes,” he said.

“We need to change something, but at this point I don’t think we need to change the ordinance,” agreed Selectman Dan Boothby, who was against the idea of booting dogs from the beach entirely.

“If we kick the dogs off the beach, they are not going to go into hiding. They are still going to be in town, in the parks or whatever,” he said.

Instead, Boothby, who sits as board liaison to the dog committee, backed its recommendation for greater enforcement of existing rules, and more signs to make sure all beach visitors are clear on what those rules are.

However, Baldwin had a critique of that solution, too.

“I would suggest that signage is to human beings as ‘voice control’ is to dogs,” he said.

Hooper asked for a study on exactly how dangerous dogs are to beachgoers. According to Boothby, there were 18 dog bites recorded in 2014, versus just three so far in 2017.

Fumicello has said he would circulate a petition to change the dog ordinance if selectmen failed to act to further restrict dog access to town beaches, suggesting his draft might include, at a minimum, evening leash-only hours during the summer, and a dog ban for certain hours during the off season.

Town Clerk Merton Brown has said mid-August is about the latest Fumicello can submit his petition signatures and still make the November ballot.

In the meantime, Town Manager Michael Pardue said this summer will see a “dramatic” increase in the number of volunteer beach monitors, all of whom will be outfitted with vests to clearly identify the status with the town. Monitors will get training in how best to communicate with those who appear to be violating the dog ordinance as it stands, along with support as needed from the police department when rule-breakers prove uncooperative, Pardue said.

According to Caren Lederer, group facilitator for “Keep the Pooches on Gooch’s,” a citizen’s action committee that rose up in the wake of Fumicello proposed dog restrictions, that commitment should go a long way toward mitigating the problem.

“We are very aware that there are issues on the beach. We accept them and we want to do whatever we can to make sure that we are asking people to be respectful,” she said

As of Tuesday, the pooches group had raised $1,250 from 22 supporters on the crowdfunding website gofundme.com “to pay for publicity materials, outreach, advertising, and other well intentioned items to support our cause.” Greater town support for volunteer beach monitors is the real key to any dog control effort that stops short of a full ban, Lederer said.

“We are looking forward to the opportunity to actually walk up to people and hold them accountable, in a very firm but friendly manner,” she said.

“We are still thinking about a lot of things to recommend to you, but we first wanted to see how this would work, because the monitors have been told in the past, ‘Do not be firm, you have no power to enforce,’ Connors said.

Meanwhile, Quail Run resident Jim Flaherty said he applauded Fumicello for forcing to the front burner a topic that had been smoldering in the background for years.

“I don’t think this is an all-or-nothing subject, and that seems to be where it’s going. So, I don’t agree with his position, but I applaud his courage to talk about it,” he said.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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