In the winter, miles of beaches along Cape Ann become the domain of dogs as owners take them off their leashes and let them romp in the sand and through wind-swept dunes.
Like many other coastal communities, Gloucester bans dogs on its beaches during the spring and summer months when visitors flock to the shore. But from Sept. 16 to April 30, dog owners are allowed with their pooches, provided they clean up after their messes and — according to the city’s ordinance — keep them leashed.
Most seaside communities — including Nahant, Marblehead, Ipswich, Lynn, and Revere — restrict dog access to beaches, parks, and other public places from spring to early fall. Officials defend the policies, saying barking, roughhousing, and the messes dogs can bring make for an unsafe and irritating environment for visitors.
“My dog is big and needs lots of exercise, so taking him for a walk around the block isn’t adequate,” said Maureen Lawler, who takes her Doberman, Nitro, for daily runs on Gloucester’s Wingaersheek Beach in the winter months. “He’ll run up and down the length of the beach chasing the seagulls, but never gets them. He loves it.”
Lawler and other dog owners said they are concerned that an upcoming city review of its leash laws could go so far as to make Gloucester beaches off limits year-round. One group has submitted a citizens’ petition calling on the city to loosen its rules to allow dogs off-leash on beaches in the winter. That proposal is on the agenda for a public hearing scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall before it goes to the City Council for a deciding vote.
Under the city’s leash laws, originally approved in 1977, dogs are prohibited from roaming “at large” in public places and must be on a leash no longer than 6 feet. The rules allowing dogs on the city’s beaches in the winter months state that they must remain “under the control of the owner or keeper” at all times.
While town officials say dog owners who let their pooches run on the beaches in winter are violating the law, Lawler and others said they’ve been doing it for years and have never had an incident with their dogs attacking other dogs or people, and they said most owners clean up after their animals. They said the city has looked the other way for decades and only recently began cracking down on unleashed dogs.
“Most dog owners are extremely responsible and pick up after their dogs,” said Joseph Butler. He and his wife, Nancy Davis, regularly walk their smooth fox terrier, Dash, at Gloucester’s Good Harbor Beach.
“There are a few bad dogs and owners, so why punish the good owners?” he said.
The issue has become somewhat of a political hot potato in this city of nearly 29,000 inhabitants, which had nearly 2,000 registered dogs in 2013. City Council members had called for a public hearing to review leash laws in September, right before the fall election, but the meeting was canceled. Mayor Carolyn Kirk, herself a dog owner, hasn’t weighed in on the debate.
Last year, when City Councilor Greg Verga called for a review of the city’s leash laws — after a constituent told him about her dog being attacked by two larger off-leash dogs at a city park — he attracted a torrent of criticism from dog owners who accused him of “trying to kick dogs off the beaches.”
Verga said his intent wasn’t to create a controversy, and he argued that the city needs to either update its leash laws or enforce what’s on the books.
“For the last 40 years, people have basically ignored the law and let their dogs run the beaches,” Verga said. “My position is that if people don’t like what’s in the ordinance, fine, let’s change it. But we need to enforce the rules.”
The citizens petition the council will consider proposes strict requirements for dog owners in exchange for allowing them to run free on city beaches, including signing a waiver of liability for the city in the event of a dog attack. So-called aggressive dogs and female dogs in heat won’t be allowed.
Gloucester has a dog park at the waterfront Stage Fort Park — which opened in 2013 after years of fund-raising and planning by a group of supporters — that has three off-leash areas: for small and large dogs and dogs in training.
But local dog owners say there’s nothing comparable to letting their four-legged friends run on a sandy beach, and they say it’s a social gathering for both dogs and owners.
“There’s a whole bunch of us who go on the beach and socialize with our dogs,” said Nancy Sabogar, who runs her 12-year-old mutt on Good Harbor Beach in the winter. “It’s a wonderful community and we’re all very responsible owners.”
The city has formed a special committee to look at revising the leash laws. Verga said he would support creating a new off-leash area somewhere in the city, but the move would have to be backed with clearly defined regulations.
“It’s only fair that if I go to the beach and want to let my dog off the leash that I can do so without being harassed,” said Verga, who owns two dogs. “Conversely, if I go to the beach to sit and read a book, nobody should be allowed to let their dog run wild right next to me.”
The state has been pressuring cities and towns to enforce leash laws, many of which have been on the books for decades but seldom enforced. In Gloucester, dog owners say they’ve been given citations for off-leash dogs by undercover animal control officers patrolling beaches.
In Newburyport, dogs are off limits at the city’s beaches but can roam free year-round at three city parks: Cashman Park, Moseley Woods, and March’s Hill.
The city has set requirements for dogs in the off-leash areas, and dogs that have a history of biting or fighting other dogs can be banned.
Nahant, which has been praised by bloggers as one of the most dog-friendly communities on the North Shore, allows leashed dogs on its beaches in the summer and has a dog park opposite the Coast Guard Station where canines can run off-leash year round. The city has even installed waste stations in some areas.
At Crane Beach in Ipswich, which is overseen by The Trustees of Reservations, a section of the sprawling shore is devoted to letting dogs off their leashes, provided the owners get their pooches certified as “Green Dogs” beforehand. Owners must be Ipswich residents or have an active Trustees membership and sign a pledge to respect the beach rules. Day passes ($4) also are available for occasional visitors.
“There is clearly a demand for an area where dogs can run free,” the trustees posted on their website. “We hope that this leash-free zone will not only make for happier dogs, but, most importantly, result in fewer tensions on other areas of the beach, thus reducing the chance of conflicts with other visitors.”
Lawler and other Gloucester dog owners said they will fight any efforts to restrict winter beach access. “There will be a huge campaign against it,” she said. “And anyone who votes for keeping dogs off the beaches will be out of office come the next election.”