We take dogs seriously on Martha’s Vineyard, so it’s often said, but (as is often the case) this “we” is not monolithic. Spring is town meeting season on the island, and one of the articles on the West Tisbury town meeting warrant has to do with dogs: dogs on Lambert’s Cove Beach.
People in this town take Lambert’s Cove Beach seriously too. Some of them have dogs, some of them don’t, and some of them think dogs and beaches are incompatible. In other words, this has all the makings of a hot issue.
It already is a hot issue. Last November, after heated discussion and in a very close vote, the citizenry at a special town meeting voted to ban dogs from the beach between June 15 and September 15. Beach-walking dog owners organized and collected enough signatures to get a article rescinding the ban on the warrant for the April 10 annual town meeting (ATM). Wanting to turn down the heat somewhat, they also organized a public forum on the issue and asked Pat Gregory, town meeting moderator, to moderate it. The idea was to solicit input from townsfolk with divergent views and perhaps to come up with a compromise proposal that most people could live with.
The forum was held last night at the Howes House, home of the Up-Island Council on Aging and host to many, many special events and meetings. When the dog forum got under way downstairs, a well-attended public forum on the library expansion was taking place on the ground floor. (When the library forum ended, library director Beth Kramer brought some leftover refreshments downstairs. The two plates of brownies were especially appreciated.)
My Travvy is not a beach dog, and I like beaches best when they’re uncrowded, unnoisy, and free, none of which apply to Lambert’s Cove Beach between June 15 and September 15. I do follow dog-related issues, however, and I support any attempt to promote civil discussion of contentious subjects, so I attended the forum.
Feelings did run high, but the discourse remained civil. The key points made by the ad hoc committee to allow dogs on the beach are made in the flyer reproduced below. The enforceability of the ban is very much open to question: are the police and the animal control officer going to drop everything to bust violators, who in most cases will be long gone by the time law enforcement can get there? The pro-dog people propose hiring someone to supervise dog hours at the beach (before 10 a.m. and after 6:30 p.m.), but neither the legalities of nor the funding for this has been worked out, and June 15 is barely two and a half months away.
One anti-dog person thought that allowing dogs on the beach nine months of the year and keeping them off the other three was enough of a compromise. This was clearly not acceptable to the pro-dog attendees. This individual also tried to suggest that dog feces were a significant factor in previous closings of the beach due to high fecal coliform counts. Better-informed people refuted this, pointing out (among other things) that the coliform counts weren’t broken down by species and that no-dogs-allowed beaches were also closed. Also noted was that dog feces, though annoying in the extreme when one steps in them, are not a health hazard.
Which brings up another reason I attended last night’s forum: at the special town meeting last November, I got the impression that the town’s parks and recreation committee, which oversees the beach and other public recreation areas, might be being overly swayed by citizens who were making refutable complaints but doing so very loudly and at very close range.
Another favorite technique is to invoke worst-case scenarios that happen rarely but still scare the hell out of almost everybody. (This has been a popular ploy on both sides of the roundabout debate: terrible things might happen if it’s built and if it isn’t, so we all have to decide which terrible possibilities we’re willing to live with.) Perhaps the most interesting part of last night’s forum was one woman’s talking about how her mother’s hip had been broken in a fall caused by an uncontrolled dog. That’s one of the worst-case scenarios for sure — but this woman is among those organizing to allow dogs on the beach.
No formal proposals emerged from the forum, but my perception is that the pro-dog people would be willing to compromise on a bylaw that allowed dogs on the beach before 10 a.m. but not after 6:30 p.m. Several people noted that the morning people were more likely to be responsible dog owners, and that more havoc was caused in the late afternoon by dogs running loose among picnicking beachgoers and those who come to watch the sun go down. Morning hours would also be easier to supervise than hours at both ends of the day.
All in all, a worthy effort. We’ll see how things play out at town meeting. Even though my dog and I don’t go to the beach, and even though I get very exasperated with the clueless and/or less-than-responsible dog owners we encounter in the woods and on the bike path, it’s a pretty safe bet that I’ll be voting for the dogs.