John Hopkins of York plays fetch with his dog, Reggie, at Short Sands Beach in York. Credit: Rich Beauchesne | The York Weekly

YORK, Maine — Police will be looking for “hard facts” of dogs attacking humans and other dogs on York’s beaches, as the Parks and Recreation Committee and then the Board of Selectmen both decided it was not time to unleash changes in the town’s dog ordinance.

Credit: File | The York Weekly

The issue came to the Parks and Recreation Committee this fall, when animal control officers Larry McAfee and Keith Bishop reported “multiple incidents of people and animals being bitten by unleashed and/or uncontrolled dogs on the beaches this year,” Chairman Ron McAllister wrote in a report to selectmen.

Under the current town ordinance, from May 20 to Sept. 20, dogs are allowed to be on the beach unleashed between sunrise and 8 a.m. “as long as the dog is under the voice control of its owner or responsible party.” The problem, as outlined by McAfee and Bishop, is that unleashed dogs not under voice control were allegedly responsible for these incidents.

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The committee asked the ACOs to speak with it, after members were made aware of individual incidents via postings on the Facebook group, York Community Dialogue.

McAfee and Bishop encouraged the committee to consider changes to the ordinance that would require all dogs to be leashed at all times and further limit the access that dog owners have during the summer season. Further, said McAllister, some citizens have themselves expressed concern about “dogs, beaches and public safety.”

This situation has come to the fore at a time when dog ownership in town is increasing. McAfee told the committee 2,800 dogs are registered this year, which doesn’t include the number of dogs brought to town by vacationers.

McAllister said potential public health concerns involving dogs are growing. “The prevalence of numerous dead seals on the town’s beaches this summer…raises the possibility (however slight) of distemper being spread to domestic animals.”

In the end, the committee decided it could not recommend changes to the ordinance, in part because it did not have hard data from York police about the number of dog-related calls to the beaches.

[Saco residents have mixed feedback to proposed beach leash law]

“We were told that from January to September, about 950 calls to animal control town-wide were logged, but we don’t know how many of these involved domestic animals or if they were on the beaches,” McAllister said. “We also do not know how many verbal warnings or written tickets were issued to dog owners this year.”

He called the role of police critical in this situation, and suggested police beef up its presence on the beaches during the early morning hours after sunrise each summer.

Police Capt. Charles Szeniawski concurred. He said, given the complaints and concerns of its ACOs, police would begin to provide a special code for incidents of dog aggression on the beaches, so police could begin to gather data. By doing that, they can also keep track of warnings and citations.

The Parks and Recreation Department is going to provide an information sheet describing the ordinance, which will be distributed to dog owners at the time they license their dogs. Enhanced information about the ordinance and its citation provisions will be placed at the Long Sands Bathhouse steps.

But Szeniawski agreed with the committee that it is not time to make ordinance changes. “Right now, there’s no way to justify that in my mind. Let’s get together a couple of years of hard facts,” he said.

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The 2006 ordinance at the heart of this discussion was hard fought at the time. Police Chief Doug Bracy initially suggested an outright ban, which led to a group of dog owners forming, and ultimately to a compromise in the language that emerged after public input.

Selectman Mike Estes, who served on the board at that time, said he was wary of anything but a cautious approach. “You have to be kidding me. Dogs?” he said. “That’s the most emails on one subject I ever got. I must have gotten 1,000 emails.”