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Paws for Alarm

NEWS1 GT1505The debate over dogs on beaches heats up

Dogs and beaches, often a happy combination, have sparked a contentious debate among community members over open space and recreation. A possible off-leash pilot program, which would grant temporary beach access to free-running dogs, has re-ignited debate and widened the rift between dog owners and some beach-goers.

The Santa Cruz County Parks Commission recommended the pilot program in December. If approved by the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, the program would designate certain beaches as areas where dog owners could let their pups run free without worrying about a $300 ticket. (Many already do so, at their own risk.) The exact locations remain undecided.

Civinomics, an online forum at which community members can vote, comment or make suggestions on civic issues, created a page prompting users to weigh in on the pilot program about a month after the recommendation. The overwhelming response has taken the pollsters by surprise.

“It’s the most activity we’ve had in such a short period of time,” says Civinomics co-founder Robert Singleton. “It’s been a little over two and a half weeks now, and the initiative page that features the pilot program has been viewed over 3,200 times.”

By comparison, Civinomics once conducted similar polling for the city of Santa Cruz on issues involving water supply. Over a month of voting time passed and that page received only 2,000 visitors. “You’d think that issues about water or transportation would be really high,” says Singleton, “but the second you bring in off-leash dogs, it becomes this intense issue for the whole community.”

The change might not come free. If the pilot program is approved, it could warrant an environmental impact report, which could cost as much as $100,000. The County Board of Supervisors will review the poll results before deciding whether or not to adopt the pilot program, Singleton says.

The comments on the initiative page reveal the interests at stake, and an intense divide. Advocates want a place to exercise their pups, while opponents are concerned for the safety of others and the environment. In a section for off-leash advocates, opponent Michael Lewis replys to almost every post.

“The beaches are for everyone, and some people are pretty uncomfortable about having dogs run loose there,” Lewis, an environmentalist and retired anthropologist, explains to GT. His concerns about off-leash dogs are primarily ecological.

“Migratory birds come from hundreds of miles away, and they need to rest up a bit,” he says. “They need to eat and breed and build nests on the beach.”

Even just a dog strolling by is enough to scare shorebirds away from their foraging grounds, says Lewis. “It’d be like if someone came to your home and let dogs run around on your dining room table or in your bedroom.”

Lewis is a member of Leash Law Advocates of Santa Cruz County, a group whose webpage features a dutifully logged report of what dogs do when they run off-leash on Santa Cruz beaches. The page includes dozens of images of dogs chasing birds and detailed reports of canines urinating in tide pools and on sand castles.

Some reports are more serious than others, as the page also includes reports of dog-on-dog violence. “We care about all animals, including domestic animals,” says Lewis. “We want to make sure they’re not harmed by dogs running loose on the beach or anywhere else.”

Others say that the risk can be mitigated, and that dog owners should be granted their own space on the shoreline. “A huge percentage of Live Oak residents own dogs, and it’s time the county allowed us some shared access of our public beaches with designated areas,” says Lynn Madden, spokesperson for Live Oak Off Leash Advocates (LOOLA), via email. “It happens in numerous other cities and counties in California and the nation.”

The flashpoint for the heated debate was Live Oak in 2012. For years, dog owners had brought dogs to county beaches. But suddenly those owners began receiving $300 tickets from the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter, when officers started enforcing the decades-old leash-less dog ban. The owners bit back, reaching out to county officials like District 1 Supervisor John Leopold, who represents Mid-County. He tried to explain that the rules were nothing new. “This enforcement is not the result of a new county policy, but instead a reallocation of resources at the animal shelter,” a newsletter from Leopold read.

Civinomics’ new page on the matter will remain open until the pilot program is either adopted or rejected.

Lewis says that dog owners can already choose from 14 off-leash parks within Santa Cruz City and County, and that beaches deserve special protection because of their environmental significance. Lewis feels they should be grateful for what they have. “The compromise has already been made,” says Lewis. “The fact that leashed dogs are allowed on beaches at all is the compromise.”

LOOLA members are attempting to tackle environmental issues head on. Many of their promotional posters feature reminders to dog owners to avoid shorebird nesting sites and clean up after their pets. Madden says dog owners have “created a wonderful community of friends of all ages and walks of life” who clean up trash and have a vested interest in keeping the beaches clean.

“We understand that there are residents who would like a dog-free beach, and we respect that,” explains Madden, who adds that many off-leash advocates would be happy to reach a compromise by agreeing to off-leash hours as well as designated off-leash areas. “Most dog owners would love a place to run their dogs legally, and would be happy to comply with a designated off-leash area.”

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