Scenes like this, with members of the public lining up to speak during a meeting of Portland's Sustainability and Transportation Committee at City Hall in February 2020, are unlikely to return anytime soon. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)
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Despite nearly an hour of pleas from dog owners to keep things as they are, the City Council’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee advanced a proposed leash law for Mayor Baxter Woods. 

The proposal is expected to go before the full council this month or in April.

City staff proposed the requirements that dogs must be leashed in the park at all times from April through July and from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. the rest of the year. Currently, dogs are allowed to be off-leash under voice control whenever the park is open. Off-leash dogs would also be prohibited in a 5.5-acre habitat restoration area within the 32-acre park between Forest and Stevens avenues. 

Opponents to a leash law in Mayor Baxter Woods wore “Baxter Woofs” stickers to the Sustainability and Transportation Committee meeting Feb. 26. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

The requirements are meant to honor the stipulations of the deed by which former Gov. Percival Baxter granted the land to the city in honor of his father, for use by the public and as a bird sanctuary.

April through July is the nesting season for migratory birds, while 9 a.m.-3 p.m. from August through March recognizes the park’s use by school groups. 

The majority of public comment at the committee’s Feb. 26 meeting was from dog owners, many wearing “Baxter Woofs” stickers, who wanted to keep using the park as they have been. They say the park is ideally suited for dog walking because of its loop trail of flat, even terrain, and no understory to harbor ticks. They spoke of the strong sense of community that has developed among the dog owners who use the park and urged the committee to respect what they say has become a traditional use. 

But a few dog owners spoke and submitted comments in support of the measure, saying their dogs do not do well around other off-leash dogs and hoped to have specific times when they knew they would be able to use the park. 

“The idea of voice controls is more of a wish than a reality,” Michael Charek of Hartley Street said. He said his Jack Russell terrier has been attacked in Baxter Woods. 

“We ask the owners to call the dogs off (and) they don’t or they try and the dogs ignore them,” Charek said. “We try to find ways to get into the woods with our dogs but we often just avoid it because it’s more trouble than it’s worth.” 

An ecological assessment and forest management plan of the park, completed in 2018, recommended that dogs be leashed at all times. Staff originally proposed that recommendation, but after dog owners opposed it, they suggested the current proposal as a compromise. 

A dog runs off leash in Baxter Woods Jan. 15. (Portland Phoenix/File)

In response to prior calls for more data collection by Friends of Mayor Baxtor Woods, Sally DeLuca, director of Parks, Recreation and Facilities, said staff visited the park for 210 days from July through February and observed 764 dogs, 65 of which were not under voice control (voice control is defined as within 50 feet). They also observed 666 instances of dog waste left in the woods. 

She noted that a change was made to the proposed bird habitat restoration area so that its southern boundary would be demarcated by a path that would be designated on-leash at all times, rather than by a physical barrier. 

“Baxter Woods is not a dog park. It is not,” DeLuca said. “It’s being used like a dog park. … It’s meant for everyone and we’re just trying to strike a balance so that everybody can use it.”

Mark Lesperance delivered the requests of the Friends group, formerly Responsible Dog Owners of Baxter Woods. He asked again that the vote be delayed to collect more data on the uses of the park. 

He said the Friends surveyed 434 users of the park and found that 98 percent wanted dogs to be allowed off-leash. They extrapolated their counts of park users to conclude that 1,000 people use the park regularly. 

They also looked at the citizen science web portal eBird and the city’s commissioned bird study at the park and determined that 11 of 12 expected species of bird have been observed in Baxter Woods. 

“We’re going to impact the lives of 1,000 people because of one species of bird?” Lesperance said. “We don’t want the tradition to change, we just don’t. We’re willing to compromise, but not at this level right now.”

He proposed eliminating the rule that dogs never be off-leash in the park from April through July, extending the rest of the year’s off-leash times to end at 10 a.m. and begin at 2 p.m., and postponing the bird habitat restoration activities until after construction has been completed on abutting property. 

Other speakers requested that the off-leash time be extended to 11 a.m., and suggested an education program to help people overcome their fear of dogs. 

“Why would you take the prime hours of the day, the best time to be there and the best months of the year away from the primary users of the park?” Christine D’Alessio said.  

Eric Topper, Maine Audubon director of education, speaks at the Sustainability and Transportation Committee meeting Feb. 26. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

Eric Topper, director of education for Maine Audubon, said his organization has not taken a formal position, and for that reason has not mobilized birders to speak in support of the measure. 

He spoke of the importance of maintaining bird habitat wherever possible, especially at the only designated bird sanctuary in the city. 

While some had argued that the meaning of a bird sanctuary in Baxter’s time was an area protected from hunting, he said the purpose of a bird sanctuary now is to protect birds’ full life cycle. One of the science-based best practices for maintaining the bird sanctuary today is to limit dogs, he said, based on the science that dogs impact breeding. 

Successful breeding is what makes the difference between what ecologists call a “source habitat,” where more of a given species exit at the end of the breeding season than entered it, and what they call a “sink habitat.” 

“You’re actually attracting birds to an area where they think it’s good breeding habitat,” Topper said, describing a sink habitat, “(and) a dog or something else flushes them off of that breeding behavior, and that year is done for many of those species.” 

He said several species are of particular concern, including song sparrows, which studies have shown reduce nesting behavior in the presence of dogs; ovenbirds, which are ground-nesting birds that would not be able to nest without the restoration of habitat, and red-eyed veery, which he said nested in tall grass in a park meadow after he requested that the meadow not be mowed. 

Planting understory native plants is necessary to restore bird habitat, Topper said. He said hemlock forests can support understory as long as the ground is not scraped bare by traffic. He said he was part of an effort to restore native plants around the vernal pool in the park, but within two weeks of planting everything had been “completely run over.”

Topper said he is a dog owner who was using Baxter Woods as a dog park until he learned that the city intended to try to manage it as a bird sanctuary. He said he’s lost sleep wondering if the proposal is too much of a compromise, as committee member Councilor Jill Duson suggested at an earlier meeting. 

“Why are we making superficial efforts, if what we’re supposed to be doing is doing the full best practices for the full use of the park?” Topper said.

Nonetheless, he concluded that compromise is necessary. 

“The straight science is super clear (about) what needs to happen,” he said. “But the reality is, all these people that we need to compromise with we need to develop as partners.” 

Duson said after reviewing documents and submitted comments she still feels that the compromise proposed by staff is inappropriate. 

“This is a really difficult compromise for me to swallow,” she said, “(but) I’ve talked myself around to that compromise.” 

The committee, which also includes Chairman Spencer Thibodeau and Councilor Belinda Ray, voted unanimously to support the recommended ordinance change.

“My hope is that the community understands where we’re coming from,” Thibodeau said. “That we thought through this decision and that (while) it is not a prohibition against dogs in this particular park, there are going to be some restrictions. 

“I think just like every other change which is extremely difficult, it’s also incumbent on us and this committee to make sure we have followup and understanding of the impact of the decisions that we make.” 

There will be additional opportunities for the public to comment when the proposal goes to the City Council. If passed by the council, city staff hope to begin enforcing the new rules in June.