West Tisbury voters pick and choose dogs on the beach rules

Battling in their habitually civilized way, West Tisbury voters sampled new rules for dogs on the beach. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

As in two previous town meetings, West Tisbury voters — 184 strong this time — failed to come to a clear resolution on the increasingly complicated and divisive issue of allowing dogs at Lambert’s Cove Beach from June 15 to September 15. They approved some articles regulating dogs at the beach while rejecting others.

After a prolonged debate, voters agreed to indefinitely postpone an article to create a new leash law that would have required all dog owners or keepers to keep their pets on a leash when not restricted to their own premises. As written, the law would impose a $50 fine for a first violation, $100 for a second violation and $250 for a third and subsequent offense.

This is the third time in seven months that West Tisbury voters have considered the prickly issue of allowing dogs at the beach in the summer, and once again the issue generated emotional debate.

Many residents argued the new law was poorly conceived, capricious, and overly restrictive.

“So if our dog is off a leash…and I see a police officer who happens to be passing, we are in for a $50 fine? It feels very draconian to me,” said Henry Geller. “I don’t understand the notion that everyone is subject to a fine if the dog is off leash.”

Animal control officer Joan Jenkinson urged voters to support the new leash law. She said she did not think it would affect responsible pet owners. She said she needs the authority to enforce penalties on dog owners who repeatedly failed to keep their dogs under control.

“I have wanted a new leash law for over a year,” Ms. Jenkinson said. “It makes sense to keep your dog safe and keep the community safe…. This doesn’t mean I am going to go around wearing my Barney Fife uniform busting people and busting dogs. That is not how I do my job.

“Where there is a problem I will be able to handle it with a bylaw that has some legality to it…. There are a lot more backyard farms with livestock now as more people are growing their own food. As your animal control officer, I need this bylaw to do my job.”

Susanna Sturgis said she never walks her dog off-leash, but still did not support the new leash law. She said it raised a number of legal questions, such as whether people who don’t own homes have the right to allow their dog’s off-leash in their yard.

Ms. Sturgis said the law seemed like overkill.

“To make this request is just asking all of us who are responsible dog owners to be scofflaws,” she said. “This seems like it was written by people who don’t live in the town of West Tisbury.”

Ebba Hierta said she supported the leash law. She said the issues surrounding dogs at Lambert’s Cove Beach has been disruptive for the town, and she has endured personal attacks because of her public support for the dog ban.

“There have been a lot of emotions surrounding this issue . . . but there has also been a lot of misunderstanding as well, based on comments I have read and names I have been called to my face. I know there are people who don’t understand my position,” she said.

Ms. Hierta said she was, in fact, a “dog person,” and used to enjoy taking walks around town with a neighbor and her four well-trained dogs. But she had a change of heart one day when she and her neighbor were walking the four dogs off-leash when they charged at a jogger.

“I knew those dogs were not a threat but that jogger clearly did not, all he saw was a pack of barking animals running straight for him . . . his heart raced and his pleasure was destroyed, and for what? So our neighbor could enjoy the right to walk dogs off-leash?”

“That day I realized the rights of all are more important than my selfish need to enjoy walking that dog off leash,” she added.

Selectman Richard Knabel proposed an amendment which would permit people to allow their dogs off leash for hunting and for farming purposes, but voters rejected the amendment and then agreed to postpone the main question, both in close standing votes.

“I will simply say it is not prudent to start from a place where you have a very defective law that is being offered and then try to amend it so it will be at the very best mediocre at the end of the evening,” said Oak Lane resident Jim Aven. “You can’t fix this with amendments.”

Voters also rejected two articles to allocate funding for a new assistant animal control officer at Lambert’s Cove Beach. The assistant would make sure that dogs were only allowed on the beach in the morning and that owners keep their pets under control and clean up after them.

Mr. Aven said the Friends of Lambert’s Cove Beach did not support funding the new positions. He said his group has offered to post volunteer attendants at the beach to help enforce the town dog policies and keep the beach clean of debris and dog droppings.

“Money is not likely to be the best answer to this sensitive issue. Enough taxpayers money is already been allocated to the animal control officer and her assistant, as well as to the maintenance of Lambert’s Cove Beach . . . why should taxpayers who have no interest in [the beach], who don’t go there, be asked to pay for this?” he said.

Mr. Aven’s comments drew a sharp rebuke from Gary Montrowl, who said the Friends of Lambert’s Cove Beach predicated rescinding the dog ban on a promise to help pay for attendants at the beach.

“We have very difficult situation at Lambert’s Cove Beach, its volatile . . . and people who use the beach understand there might be confrontations over this, there could be outright fistfights. And what I am saying is you are being extremely dishonest,” he said.

On the other hand, voters approved two articles to spend money for a new parking lot attendant at Lambert’s Cove Beach, to make sure dogs are kept off the beach in the evening, after other town employees go home for the day.

Selectmen proposed the two new positions after voters approved a partial ban on dogs at Lambert’s Cove Beach, from June 15 to September 15. At a special town meeting in November, voters agreed in a close vote to ban dogs outright from the beach in the summer.

The ban was proposed by the parks and recreation department, after years of complaints about out of control dogs and excessive dog droppings at the beach.

A group called Friends of Lambert’s Cove Beach then successfully petitioned to place an article on the warrant of the annual meeting in April to repeal the ban. In the end, voters struck a compromise and agreed to only allow dogs during the summer between 7 and 10 am.

Voters on Tuesday also approved a new bylaw to impose a fine on anyone who violates the rules for any property managed by the parks and recreation committee, including anyone who violates the town’s new policies regarding dogs at Lambert’s Cove Beach.

Parks and recreation co-chairman, Cheryl Lowe, said the bylaw will give the town more authority to enforce the rules at all town parks, beaches and recreational facilities.

“It’s not just Lambert’s Cove Beach, it’s also our basketball court, it’s our tennis courts,” Ms. Lowe said. “This is to give us a little more control if people are breaking the rules so we can do something about it, instead of just saying: don’t do it again.”

Former selectman John Alley said the new rules were a big change that needed further debate and public airing. “As drafted this is not clear to voters. It should be worked on further before we pass something, that . . . when people read about it in the newspaper they will say: what did we just do?” he said.

But Eric Lowe argued the new bylaw wasn’t as complicated as some were making it out to be.

“I don’t understand why people don’t understand,” Mr. Lowe said. “It is very clear again they are asking for the ability to enforce the rules on the beach . . . they are asking for the ability to enforce the rules that are already there. I don’t understand why we don’t just give it to them.”

In non-dog related matters, voters approved an article to spend up to $45,991 for resurfacing the shared West Tisbury Library and Howes House parking area, using a mixture of asphalt and pervious interlocking concrete pavers.

The plan would satisfy the conditions assumed by the town when the town accepted the gift of the property from Gladys Jones in 1976. The gift stipulated the land would not be blacktopped and used as a commercial parking lot.