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Sharon health board bans dogs from beaches

By Jennette Barnes
Globe Correspondent / June 10, 2012
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The Sharon Board of Health voted, 3-2, Monday to ban dogs from town beaches six months of the year, touching off a clash over dogs and jurisdiction that one selectman said was “almost like a mini constitutional crisis.”

In May, Town Meeting rejected an article that would have required dog owners to get a permit to bring dogs to the beach. The Board of Selectmen also opposed the requirement, 3-0.

Opponents of the ban have characterized the Town Meeting vote as upholding existing policy, which restricts dogs but does not fully ban them from beach property, but last week, Board of Health vice chairman Jay Schwab called the Town Meeting vote “irrelevant.” State law clearly gives health departments the right to pass laws that affect residents’ health, he said.

Schwab, a pediatric dentist, said bacteria can live for a long time in the sand at the town’s two fresh-water beaches and present a danger, especially to children. Dog feces harbor E. coli, hookworm, and ringworm, he said, and dogs at the beach represent not only a health hazard, but also a nuisance and an impediment to people who are afraid of them.

Skeptics question whether enough fecal matter is left on the beach to constitute a significant threat to public health.

In an interview with the Globe last week, Lake Management Study Committee chairman Cliff Towner cited a recent death as evidence of the danger of E. coli. On May 26, 6-year-old Owen Carrignan of Millbury died of hemolytic-uremic syndrome, an acute form of kidney failure often caused by E. coli or other gastrointestinal infections. He had E. coli in his system, and his father suspected food was the source.

Towner accused the Board of Selectmen of putting personal interests over public ones by relaxing beach rules in 2010.

“They’re trashing the park, basically, is what they’re doing, for their own self-serving motives,” he said.

Towner said he ran into Selectman Richard Powell at the beach with his dog in 2010, and, “next thing you know, the sign was up that dogs are allowed.”

In response, Powell said the chance meeting with Towner occurred after the Board of Selectmen adopted the new policy, and that he didn’t even own a dog at the time of the change.

For many years, dogs were banned at the beaches on Lake Massapoag, some officials said. Powell said the history was not entirely clear but a previous ban “seems to be the general consensus.”

In August 2010, the selectmen, who also serve as park commissioners, voted unanimously to adopt a new policy. According to minutes on the town website, the policy reads, “1. No dogs shall be allowed on Memorial Park Beach (1) from Memorial Day through Labor Day during the hours when the beach is staffed with a gate attendant and/or lifeguard, or (2) at any additional time when Memorial Park Beach is being used for a public event. At all other times dogs shall be allowed only on the path and shall be held firmly on a leash.”

For the town’s other beach, the policy says, “2. No dogs shall be allowed on the Community Center Beach from Memorial Day through Labor Day. At all other times dogs shall be allowed on the beach only if held firmly on a leash.”

The Board of Health’s frequently asked questions page on the town website answers the question, “May I bring my dog to the beach?” this way: “NO. Dogs are not allowed at the public beaches.”

The Board of Health regulation approved Monday banning dogs during the warmer months did not take effect immediately. It was set to take effect June 25, when the board plans to meet again. Members said they would listen to information town employees gathered in the interim about how much fecal matter they found on the beach.

Margaret Arguimbau, chairwoman of the Sharon Conservation Commission,said the commission has voted to support a ban.

“There should not be dogs on the beach, especially during the active season, whether they’re on a leash or not,” she said.

At the Board of Health meeting, Powell said the issue of competing jurisdictions had become “almost like a mini constitutional crisis,” but in a later interview with the Globe, he said the Board of Health does have wide jurisdiction over health issues.

“Identifying it as a significant public health issue is important to establishing that jurisdiction,” he said.

Board of Health chairwoman Susan Osgood Peck voted for the ban on Monday, but said she hasn’t decided how to vote at the next meeting should members decide further action is necessary; she will wait to see how much waste is found on the beach.

“I’m a data person,” she said, but added, “A board of health should err on the precautionary side.”

Jennette Barnes can be reached at jennettebarnes@yahoo.com.

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