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.


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

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