Monthly Archives: December 2013

The unproven problem… full speed ahead!

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First Meeting of the AHACAC

The Ad Hoc Animal Control Advisory Committee (which is saddled with the entirely unsatisfactory acronym of “AHACAC”) had its first meeting at the entirely unsatisfactory time of 5:15 pm on Friday evening, December 27.  The seven members and Town Manager Hall were joined by about ten interested members of the public.

After the meeting I realized that the Committee reminded me of another group…  yes, that loveable bunch of sitcom castaways from the 1960s.  Please don’t take this comparison the wrong way – I honestly mean it in a very flattering sense.  The Committee members appear to be a diverse group of extremely talented and well-intentioned folks dedicated to a common goal: fixing what’s wrong – if anything – with Scarborough’s animal control ordinance. May the determination, resourcefulness and good humor that sustained those long-ago castaways also nurture the Committee in its efforts.

Unfortunately, despite their talents and good intentions, I’m afraid their biases with respect to “the problem” may lead some of them down the path for which they were hand-picked by Town officials to march.  It was obviously not an accident that four of the seven members are very sympathetic to the slings and arrows to which our piping plover friends have long been subjected.  And that sympathy clearly outweighs the traditional and reasonable enjoyment of our beaches by dog owners.  I hope I am wrong and that a careful, fact-based and unbiased analysis of “the problem” will take place. And that the recommended solutions will fit the real problem.

Of course it's a balanced committee!  (Sorry I haven't mastered Photoshop.)
Of course it’s a balanced committee!            (Sorry I haven’t mastered Photoshop.)

AHACAC (Gesundheit!) Update

So, what happened at the meeting, you ask?  Well, it was mostly a get-to-know-each-other sort of thing, as well as a setting up of procedures for going forward.  But let me highlight three significant decisions/discussions:

1.  Transparency will hinder the Committee’s work

The Committee appeared to understand the need for transparency to counteract the public skepticism surrounding their ability to make recommendations that reflect the will of the 73% of the voters who nixed the Council’s ordinance amendment.  To address transparency, they started out with a proposal to take minutes and post them to the Town website.  Town Manager Hall said that minutes would be of limited usefulness since they would only capture the bare bones of the meetings and could not be reviewed and published in a timeframe that would be useful to the public.  Hall then confirmed that the meetings could be broadcast and/or videotaped just as Council meetings are.  But that suggestion was ruled out because, according to one Committee member, it might inhibit frank discussions among members.  (And if there’s one thing we don’t want, it’s the public to see frank discussions!)  So back they went to essentially useless and untimely minutes being the general public’s access to the Committee’s deliberations.

As a result of Committee’s consensus, there are basically two ways you, Concerned Citizen, can keep up-to-date on the AHACAC’s work – you may attend in person or, for insightful analysis, sign up to follow this blog.  By the way, meetings are currently scheduled for 6:30pm on January 6, 9 and 13.

2.  Not enough time for public input

To those of you who were yearning for an open process with an opportunity for public interaction with the Committee as they craft their recommendations, sorry.  It turns out there isn’t enough time to allow for that.  (Well, maybe they’ll schedule one meeting for public input after they come up with their recommendations.)  Fear not, however… your voice will be heard!  A special Town email account will be set up for incoming suggestions.  Many of you have already had experience with one-way emails to members of the Town Council, and you know how effective that was in many cases.

But why isn’t there enough time for legitimate public interaction with the Committee as they frame the problem and suggest solutions?  Very simply, because we’re on the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s schedule.  The Town has to act (i.e., amend its ordinance to prohibit any off-leash beach time for dogs during the summer) by the possible USFWS deadline of April 1, 2014.  USFWS, in case you hadn’t noticed, is driving this entire absurdly-scheduled, outcome-biased process.  Or, rather, USFWS is being used by certain Councilors as a pretext to enact long-desired limitations of dogs on beaches, regardless of public sentiment.

Speaking of being in a hurry, let’s not lose sight of one crucial point – the Town has still not seen the Maine Warden’s Service report on the alleged death of a piping plover chick on Pine Point Beach more than five months ago.  No one knows the exact circumstances surrounding the incident.  (I heard a new version of the story at the Committee meeting.)  And why is it that the Town hasn’t seen the report?  Because the USFWS Office of the Regional Solicitor in Hadley, MA won’t release it since it’s part of an “open investigation.”  So — follow me closely here — the Town has to jump through ridiculous hoops to meet a possible USFWS deadline while the USFWS refuses to produce the key piece of evidence on the event that started this brouhaha.  My head hurts.

 3.  About that Piping Plover Coordinator…

In June, 2012, the Town entered into a “Beach Management Agreement” with USFWS and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for the 2012 through 2014 piping plover nesting seasons.  One requirement of that agreement: “The position of piping plover coordinator shall be incorporated into Community Services Programs and funded as part of that budget for the period April 1 through August 31, annually.”  Among the duties enumerated for the plover coordinator: “The piping plover coordinator will recruit and schedule volunteer monitors.”  And: “The Coordinator will collect daily reports from volunteer monitors, compile data, and act as liaison with The Town and state officials.”

 It turns out, according to Town Manager Hall, that there is no formal job description for the plover coordinator position.  And no formal reports have been produced.  In fact, the coordinator position appears to be more of the symbolic nature than the productive nature.  It was merely a title added to an employee who already had a full-time position in Community Services.

The more I learn about the Town’s past commitment to piping plovers, the more I am convinced that we deserve that $12,000 fine from USFWS.  Not because of the highly questionable link between a supposedly inadequate animal control ordinance and an unfortunate accidental death of a piping plover, but for sheer disregard of previous commitments to plover protection and encouragement measures.  Historically, the Town has not made a good-faith effort to protect piping plovers.

The Next Meeting… Just what is “the problem”?

At Friday’s meeting, some members seemed anxious to dive right into “solutions” without giving much thought to “the problem.”  Isn’t an accurate description of the problem a  prerequisite to arriving at the correct solution?

Do we really have a problem with dogs and piping plovers?  If so, how significant is the problem? 

It’s not as if the Kiwanis Club has been holding an annual piping plover hunt every Memorial Day weekend with a cash prize for the biggest plover bagged.  In fact, despite a marked lack of enforcement by the Town, Scarborough’s record with respect to dogs and plovers has been very good.  In the 30 years that Audubon has been keeping records, there have been two possible plover takes associated with dogs: In 2003, USFWS states that an adult piping plover was killed on Pine Point Beach.  According to an undated letter from USFWS to the Town in September, 2013, “the evidence suggested that this bird [in 2003], too, was killed by a dog.”   That’s a fairly loose standard of culpability, isn’t it?  “Suggested” evidence.   So it might have been a dog.  Or maybe a fox.  Or perhaps a coyote.  Whatever.

And then there’s the July 15, 2013 incident on Pine Point Beach.  The incident for which no official report of any kind has yet been released to the public.  At the time, you may recall that there were conflicting media reports on the incident.  So what exactly happened?  And when?  Was it, in fact, a plover chick?  And, if so, piping, semipalmated or black-bellied plover?  Sorry, but I’m uncomfortable with the USFWS being both judge and jury for this incident.

So, there are two essentially unconfirmed reports of dogs taking plovers in 30 years.  During which period there were probably tens of thousands of hours of off-leash dogs on the beaches.  That’s not sounding like much of a problem.  And shouldn’t any solutions be in proportion to the magnitude of the problem?  Perhaps the Town should actually honor previously made commitments with respect to education, monitoring and enforcement before enacting unnecessary ordinance restrictions to which the voters are strongly opposed.

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Happy New Year to All!

As 2013 draws to a close, New Year’s Eve celebrations will be the order of the day, from the very raucous to the very tame.  Every year, television serves up a montage of massive fireworks displays from around the world as Father Time limps along his daily circuit of the time zones for the last time of the old year.

Apparently they are not shy about spectacular fireworks displays in the Bahamas, where many of our piping plover friends overwinter.  (Links provided below.)  I have always been very puzzled by the notion that plovers are particularly sensitive to fireworks and that fireworks cause a major disruption in their lives.  I don’t understand how fireworks are even a tiny bit more disruptive than the thunderstorms that Mother Nature orchestrates on a fairly routine basis.  Someday I’ll have to dig up the studies that demonstrate how fireworks are more damaging to the psyches of plovers than thunderstorms.

In the meantime, on New Year’s Eve I will be imagining Ned and Alice (piping plover band numbers A109-732 and G288-401) sitting on a beach in Bimini sipping rum-based drinks and enjoying a breathtaking fireworks display.

 I wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!

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 Fireworks in the Bahamas:

 Bahamas Fireworks on the Beach – Jan 1, 2012: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QmYXjgt0So

Bimini Fireworks on the Beach – Jan 1, 2012:  http://bimini-bahamas.blogspot.com/2012/01/bimini-bahamas-new-years-eve-fireworks.html

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Christmas Wishes

ImageChew bones are great, Santa, but what we really want is some off-leash time on the beach next summer!

Holiday Schedule Update…

From the “who would have guessed department:”  It turns out that the proposed date for the first meeting of the Ad Hoc Animal Control Advisory Committee – December 26 – isn’t going to work.  Too many members apparently have family and/or travel commitments.  Imagine that!  People are busy with their families during the week between Christmas and New Year’s!  No worries, 14 business days will still be plenty of time to arrive at a forgone conclusion.

Given the hiatus, I, too, plan to spend the next few days enjoying time with family and friends.  I will, however, return refreshed and rejuvenated with more lively and informative posts in the days ahead.  I have several real corkers in mind.  In the meantime, best Christmas wishes to all!

 dogblog-snoopy xmas

                     Peace on earth (including beaches), good will to all!

“I’m not going to fight the government.”

A Christmas miracle?

dogs-christmas miracle

For a few brief minutes yesterday evening, the unthinkable seemed possible: the Scarborough Town Council appeared to be on the verge of listening to the common-sense pleas of the Town’s citizens.  Were we to have our own little Christmas miracle?  Yes, they actually considered extending the wildly unrealistic deadline they had suggested for the new “Ad Hoc Animal Control Advisory Committee” to complete its work – 21 business days amid three holidays to craft a reasonable response to a complex, highly charged issue.  But, no, the esteemed Council members reverted to their true form and nixed the proposed extension.  Apparently 21 days is plenty of time to ram through a predetermined outcome while still preserving the appearance of fair public input.  Councilor Donovan thought 21 days was sufficient.

Councilor St. Clair made a plea that the public name names when questioning Councilors’  statements and positions.  I think she’s right.  Voting against the one-month extension of the deadline were Councilors Benedict, Blaise and Donovan.  That resulted in a 3-3 tie, so the extension amendment was defeated.  Council Chair Sullivan was not present at last night’s meeting.  The last time he was not present – when a 3-3 tie caused the Council not to reconsider their dubious all-leashes, all-the-time amendment – then-Council chair Ahlquist reported that Mr. Sullivan was moose hunting.

More of the same

The Council’s discussion and action Wednesday evening confirmed once again their starting point for any possible modifications  of the animal control ordinance – the US Fish and Wildlife Service is in charge of our beaches. Since a few piping plover families have popped in to spend the summer season on our beaches, the Council has essentially turned over setting access policies for our beaches to a Federal agency.  This is in spite of three important factors:

  •   No Council member has seen the Maine Warden Service report on the alleged death of a piping plover chick on July 15.  Yes, the Town basically entered a guilty plea without seeing the evidence.  How irresponsible is that?
  • The legal basis for the USFWS’s Notice of Violation to the Town is questionable.  Dueling high-priced lawyers disagree on this point, but that’s often the case.
  • The Council refuses to consider the option of simply paying the possibly reinstated $12,000 fine and move on with defining how Scarborough residents want to balance beach access rules with threatened species protection.

(One quick reminder that cannot be repeated often enough – having dogs on leashes is not the USFWS’s preferred method of “protecting” piping plovers from dogs.  They would much prefer no dogs at all on beaches all summer.  Period.  Do not take the word of a jaundiced observer (me) on this… look at what happened at Western Beach this past summer.  In order to get the US Army Corps of Engineers to “renourish” the beach, USFWS prevailed upon the Prouts Neck Association to ban all dogs from the beach from April 1 to September 30.  There’s a definite pattern here – USFWS goes town by town, and even beach by beach, and extracts the strongest concessions they can with the minimum amount of effort and public outcry.  Unfortunately, USFWS has found an all too willing accomplice in the Scarborough Town Council.)

See just how close we are to that slippery slope!

See just how close we are to that slippery slope!

In their own words…

Councilor Blaise

Councilor Blaise

The crowd of about 25 dog supporters  was remarkably quiet, restrained and well-behaved considering the Council’s continuing determination to ignore the will of the people.

Councilor Blaise, however, drew major guffaws with his statement that he hadn’t seen any other solutions regarding the plover issue.

He also made the statement of the night: “I’m not going to fight the government.”  That crisp sentiment, which appears to be shared by at least three other Councilors, is at the very heart of the problem.  Councilor Blaise and others are willing – no, anxious – to cede control of access to Scarborough’s   beaches to a Federal agency.  Many of us are not.

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EXCLUSIVE: Late Breaking News…

dogsblog-ppl adv

STOP THE USFWS CHARADE

Since the alleged killing of a piping plover chick on Pine Point Beach this past July, the Scarborough Town Council has seized on the threats of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) as the rationale for enacting new restrictions on access by dogs to the Town’s beaches.  Those threats are a red herring that some Councilors are using to promote their long-held personal biases.  Let’s take a look at the USFWS’s actions and their real implications for the Town.

usfws logo

What did the USFWS do?

In simple but direct terms, two things: First, in an “informal consultation” dated August 20, 2013, USFWS essentially told the Town of Scarborough and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) that unless the Town eliminated the meager summer off-leash hours for dogs on Town beaches, USFWS would withhold its blessing of the USACE project to dredge the Scarborough River.  That would potentially delay the project and make the Pine Point anchorage area inaccessible to fishermen and boaters.  (With the USACE’s awarding of the dredge contract on December 2, that threat has been largely negated.)

As a second club, USFWS issued a “Notice of Violation” on September 11, 2013 that proposed a $12,000 civil penalty for the Town’s alleged complicity in the death of the piping plover chick.  After an intense period of feverish negotiation [not likely!], the Town Council on October 2, 2013 approved a Settlement Agreement with USFWS.  The Agreement provided for a reduced fine of $500 in exchange for the Council enacting an amended animal control ordinance that eliminated summer off-leash hours on Town beaches, as well as making enforcement and education improvements.

 dogs-usfws-violation

And the Town Council’s reaction?

From the beginning, the Town Council has embraced the USFWS’s threats and demands – those threats and demands provided a perfect smokescreen for rushing forward on an agenda many Councilors have long desired – further restrictions on dogs on beaches.  The USFWS’s arrival was a godsend – the Council could enact a more restrictive leash law without considering what Scarborough residents want… “Golly gee, we HAVE TO enact this new leash law ‘cause the Feds told us to.”  So our Council, bowing to the highly questionable demands of Washington bureaucrats, let itself off the hook of representing the citizens of Scarborough.  How convenient!

The Council’s attitude is now playing out in the formation of the “Ad Hoc Animal Control Advisory Committee.”  The Council’s guiding principle for the committee is “how do we satisfy the USFWS?”  instead of “how do the citizens of Scarborough want to balance access to our beaches with the protection of threatened species?”   When you start with the wrong question, you will almost always arrive at the wrong answer.

That misinformed guiding principle is reflected in at least two significant ways:

·          The selection and composition of the committee.  It is a small, “manageable” committee.  (Manageable for whom, one wonders.)  The process for selecting members was decidedly non-public.  (Did anyone ask you if you wanted to be on the committee?) And, although as of this writing the exact composition of the committee has not been announced, I will go out on a limb and predict that the 73% of voters who restored the balanced leash law will get less than 50% representation on the committee.  (What could that possibly mean for the committee’s recommendations to the Council?)

·         The timing of the committee’s work and report.  With 21 business days smack in the middle of the holiday season, the committee is supposed to wrestle with this complex, highly-charged issue and propose reasonable solutions.  Let’s be honest, the proposed schedule only makes sense when there is a simple, predetermined outcome – “the committee recommends amending the animal control ordinance to comply with the USFWS demands.”

It was 4 below on Higgins Beach this morning...

It was 4 below on Higgins Beach this morning.  It was in the mid 70s in the Bahamas where our piping plover friends overwinter.  Some birds have all the luck.

What could the Town Council do?

If the Councilors were truly representing the citizens of Scarborough, they could drop the pretext that complying with the USFWS’s “guidelines” is required.  In fact, given where we are right now with USFWS, there is a very easy, low-risk strategy – do nothing and see what USFWS’s next move is.

They may do nothing.  In which case the Town can begin a thoughtful, fact-based review of its animal control ordinance on a reasonable schedule to determine if modification of the ordinance and/or changes in enforcement and education are appropriate.

 Or, if USFWS decides to “reopen” the violation case, the Council could simply decide to pay the additional $11,500 and be done with it.  Yes, they could take a deep breath, say to themselves “yup, we should have done a better job of enforcing the old ordinance and we’ll try harder in the future.”  Think of it as a cost of doing business.  When you get a speeding ticket, you pay it and get on with your life.

 But can’t you hear the righteous squeals from behind the Council table now – “It’s our duty to the people of Scarborough to hold their taxes down.  That $12,000 isn’t in the budget!  Where will we ever come up with that much money?”  The truth of the matter, however, is that $12,000 is miniscule in a total budget of $54 million.  If I did my arithmetic correctly, a $4,000 tax bill would go all the way up to $4,001.  Even in terms of revenues from beach sources (passes and permits), it’s not an extraordinary one-time charge – beach management revenues for Fiscal 2013 were projected at $226,000 (with an operating profit of $22,000).  Never have so many been so concerned with so little!   And if there isn’t a contingency line in a $54,000,000 budget that can absorb an unexpected $12,000 item, we have a severe financial management problem.

Bottom line

After voters overwhelmingly restored a thoughtful and balanced animal control ordinance, the Council needs to – finally and honestly – listen to their constituents.  That means, the starting point for any ordinance amendment should not be compliance with the arbitrary dictates of the USFWS.  The starting point should be the will of the citizens of Scarborough.

Coming Soon…

  • ·         The July 15, 2013 incident – a muddled story and many unanswered questions
  • ·         The Bird Protection Industry and how it operates
  • ·         Birds & Beaches – The Slippery Slope of Beach Access Limitations
  • ·         Piping Plovers – Facts, Fantasies & Funny Stories

Ad Hoc Committee Details and Dredge Award

December 13, 2013 – Two major announcements today…  The Town website has the resolution outlining the structure and objectives of the Ad Hoc Animal Control Advisory Committee that will examine the issues surrounding dogs and piping plovers on Town beaches.  And the US Army Corps of Engineers has officially awarded the contract for the dredging of Scarborough harbor.

The Scarborough Town Council at work.

The Scarborough Town Council at work.

First, the ad hoc committee.

The resolution appears as pages 7-9 of the agenda for the December 18 Town Council meeting as posted on the Town website.  Two things stand out:

1. The report has to be completed by January 21, 2014.  Hmmm… Assuming the group meets for the first time the day after the Council meeting, they will have 21 working days – tucked in among three holidays – to complete a huge and complex task with significant data collection needs, widely divergent opinions and much emotion.  How could anything go wrong with that schedule?

2. The committee members are “to be announced” at the Council meeting.  Hmmm, again… The dog owners’ group asked for a committee size of 12 in order to represent a broad spectrum of interests; they got seven as directed by the Council to keep the group “manageable.”   That’s a good start on compromise.  Not.  And all seven members of the Committee have been selected by the Town Manager and Council leadership.  Again, what could possibly go wrong for the dog owners?

So, since 73% of the voters in the special election voted no in support of the dog owners’ position, we should expect 73% representation on the ad hoc committee, right?  That would require that five members of a seven-person committee be no voters/dog owners.  Any bets on how many committee members will be from the no voters/dog owners’ group?  I’m guessing not five of the seven.  Four, maybe?  Keep dreaming.  My guess – three.  Enough so the Councilors can truthfully say that dog owners’ concerns were aired, but few enough to ensure that dog owners’  recommendations will not be adopted in the final report.  That’s completely consistent with the Council’s previous record of ignoring not just the dog owners, but the voters in the special election.  And it’s the only way they can carry out this holiday-time charade of “listening” to the concerns of the Town residents.

Scarborough River -- Dredge to begin January 6, 2014.

Scarborough River — Dredge to begin January 6, 2014.

Second, the Scarborough River dredging project.

As you will recall from this past summer, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (“USFWS”) was holding the Scarborough River dredging project hostage – unless the Town modified its animal control ordinance to comply with USFWS “guidelines,” USFWS would insist on the US Army Corps of Engineers completing a “formal consultation” for the project, a bureaucratic maneuver that could threaten the Corps’ ability to complete the dredge project this winter.  And potentially leave the harbor unnavigable for the Town’s fishing community.  Somewhere along the way, USFWS decided to drop this demand.  Perhaps they were afraid it would look too heavy-handed.  Or perhaps they decided that having the $12,000 fine for the Town’s supposed complicity in the alleged death of a piping plover was enough of a club to get their “guidelines” adopted by a Council already anxious to restrict dog access to the beaches.

In any event, the dredge is officially on.  Perhaps (and this may be pure wishful thinking) the USFWS actually heard the message of Scarborough voters on December 3 and have decided they don’t want to be seen as the bad guys in this.  USFWS’s modus operandi is to go town-by-town and use every opportunity they have to get as much as they can in terms of beach access restrictions without using large amounts of internal resources or creating inordinate amounts of adverse publicity for the agency.   Maybe the December 3 vote caused USFWS to get the message that the Town Councilors didn’t.  If they did, it is very possible that USFWS will choose not to reopen the Settlement Agreement with the Town and just wait for their next opportunity to insert themselves into our beach access policies.  Unfortunately, several Councilors, for reasons of their own, have decided not to consider this possibility.

Sorry this post was so long, but both these matters are too important to gloss over.

Welcome to Scarborough Beaches Alert!

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Since the reported killing of a piping plover chick at Pine Point Beach in Scarborough, Maine on July 15, 2013, the issue of dogs on the Town’s beaches has been a hot topic.  In this blog, I hope to add some light to the heat this topic has already generated.  My goals are to:

  • inform
  • analyze
  • entertain
  • and, where necessary, excoriate.

Any undertaking like this will necessarily have a point a view.  Mine is simple — the people of Scarborough should control access to the Town’s beaches.  Not a Federal agency.  And not those members of the Town Council who are attempting to impose their personal opinions on the rest of us.  I hope you will enjoy this small attempt to separate the real issues, motives and solutions from the phony ones.