RESIDENTS of the borough have made their voices heard on controversial plans to ban dogs from beaches, playing fields and children’s play parks.
New laws brought into effect earlier this year as part of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2011 have provided local authorities across Northern Ireland with greater enforcement powers, and Larne Council intends to introduce a number of dog control orders across the borough.
The sweeping reforms include introducing fixed penalties for people who take dogs into children’s play parks and playing fields. The new laws also give authorised officers the power to require that, when they deem it appropriate, dogs must be put on a lead. It has also been proposed that dogs should be required to wear a lead at all times when they are in graveyards.
And in what has proven to be one of the most contentious moves, it has been proposed that Ballygally, Carnlough, Browns Bay and Portmuck beaches will be off limits to dogs at certain times of the year.
Anyone who is detected committing an offence under the orders would receive a fine of £80, or a reduced amount of £50 if it is paid within a certain time.
As part of a four-week consultation process into these proposals, the local authority held public meetings in Ballygally and Islandmagee to gauge the opinion of local people.
About 12 people were in attendance at the meeting in Islandmagee Community Centre last Wednesday evening, while more than 30 turned out at Ballygally Community Hall the following evening.
Members of the public were asked to air their feelings on each of the planned dog control orders. And, as was expected, the two issues that caused the biggest stir were the exclusion of dogs from beaches and play parks/playing fields.
Director for environmental services for Larne Council, Philip Thompson, told those present that the council intended to ban dogs from beaches at Ballygally, Carnlough, Brown’s Bay and Portmuck from April-September between the hours of 10am-8pm.
But the consensus at both meetings was that this period of exclusion was too long and many residents said they would prefer a shorter time frame, with one person suggesting it should be limited to June-August and on bank holidays between the hours of 11am and 6pm.
Also, most people were against the idea of dogs being completely excluded from beaches and indicated they would prefer the animals be kept on leads instead.
One dog-owner said: “I would love my dog to have the freedom to run around on the beach, but a balance needs to be struck. You can’t have animals running around off the lead when some people are terrified of dogs. Making dog owners keep their pets on leads would make some people feel safer when going on to the beach.”
However, another resident felt that keeping dogs on leads would not solve this problem and added: “Some people are so scared of dogs that it doesn’t matter if they are on a lead or not. My young daughter was once knocked down by a dog and she will not even go near one now because she is so terrified.”
It was also suggested that beaches should be segregated to allow dogs to be left off the leads in certain areas.
Those in attendance were also split over the proposal to ban dogs from playing fields and play parks.
Some residents felt that banning dogs from places like Sandy Bay would unfairly penalise responsible dog owners.
One resident described the measures as draconian and urged the council to come up with a better solution.
He added: “I walk my dog round Sandy Bay every day and always clean up after it, and I also lift up any rubbish I find lying about. I understand that there are a small number of people who do not clean up after their dogs, but the rest of us responsible dog owners are being punished for their actions.”
Another person added: “Walking your dog is a social activity, and if we are banned from parks and play areas, where are we going to go? I also feel that excluding us from these areas will just shift the problem of dog fouling from one place to another.”
One woman suggested that a secure area be set up where dog owners can pay a nominal fee to let their dogs off the lead and have a run around.
Sean Martin, head of environmental health at Larne Borough Council said this idea had been raised on a previous occasion and added: “There is plenty of land available in the borough and it could present a good business opportunity.”
Residents had no issue with the proposal to keep dogs on leads in cemeteries, and did not object to the order which stated they must put their dogs on a lead when directed to do so by a council officer.
But there was some dissent over plans to introduce a discounted fine for people who pay their fixed penalties within a certain time.
One resident questioned why the council was offering a discount at all, and suggested that the maximum fine should be increased to act as a deterrent to offenders.
But Mr Martin explained: “We want to encourage prompt payments so that the case does not end up in court. Once it gets to court, the costs to council increase substantially.”
Mr Thompson added that the council had to operate within the constraints set by the Department of the Environment, which had determined that £80 was the maximum amount a fixed penalty fine could be set at.
Another resident felt that people who are taken to court for dog fouling offences should be “named and shamed” in the local press.
Mr Thompson said the council could look into the possibility of regularly sending out a press release listing people who have been convicted in the courts for dog fouling offences.
Mr Martin also encouraged more people to come forward and be prepared to act as witnesses in court cases.
“For a fixed penalty to be issued, the council has to be satisfied that the case will stand up in court. The evidence against the offender has to be strong enough to secure a conviction, which is why we need witness statements from anyone who is willing to testify,” he added.
The council will now compile the opinions that have been expressed by residents throughout the borough and determine whether to forge ahead as planned or make any amendments to the proposals.
The dog control orders will then go before Larne Council for final approval, but if any significant changes are to be made then the orders will have to be readvertised and another consultation period will be held.