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Council Considers Allowing Dogs on Beaches

By Cindy Frazier

January 13 -- To the delight of dog owners, the City Council took the first step Tuesday toward becoming the first Santa Monica Bay city to create a designated spot for dogs to run on the beach.

Although State law prohibits dogs -- leashed or unleashed -- on most state-owned beaches, such as Santa Monica's, they are permitted in a handful of municipalities, including Long Beach, Carmel and Santa Cruz.

Under a proposal floated by dog owners -- identified by the City as “guardians” --, unleashed dogs would be allowed on an unfenced stretch of sand near the City’s northern border.

Environmentalists, however, worry that dogs will ad to beach pollution, while some City officials caution that unfettered dogs could pose a danger to beach goers.

While the city has three off-leash dog areas -- reserved for residents -- and a fourth is in the works, activists argue that the anti-canine law reduces dog lovers' enjoyment of the city's beaches.

"I chose to live here in Santa Monica because of the beach," said Georja Umano Jones, who founded Unleash the Beach, the group lobbying for the proposal. "I love the beach and my dogs, but I can't go to the beach with my dogs."

Jones said her two Jack Russell terriers, Marcello and Zucchero ("Zukie") enjoy frolicking in the city's off-leash dog park at Josslyn Park in the Ocean Park district near her home.

But she wants to be able to take them to the beach without driving long distances.

After hearing testimony from proponents of the proposed dog beach and a report from City staff outlining the prospects of such a plan, the council quickly agreed to study how to implement a pilot project.

Jones' group, which has been working since last June, gave City officials 2,500 signatures on petitions seeking a dog beach.

The group has aligned itself with another pro-dog beach group, Freeplay, which is pushing a similar proposal for Dockweiler State Beach south of Marina del Rey. Another group is lobbying for a dog beach at Will Rogers State Beach in Pacific Palisades, north of Santa Monica.

The groups are hoping that Santa Monica will take the lead and be the first to break the "dog barrier" on the area’s beaches.

Jones' group has proposed that a 4.8-acre portion of sand in the northerly area of the beach be earmarked for dogs.

The area is located between lifeguard stations 11 and 12, parallel to the area between California Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard.

"We only want the first 300 feet of beach from the ocean," Jones said. "That stretch of beach is less utilized. We chose it because it is inconvenient, and won't affect the public's use of the beach."

Several thorny issues remain, including whether Santa Monica can override State law regarding dogs on the beach.

Santa Monica's beach is run by the City under an operating agreement with the State, and the local superintendent of the California Department of State Parks has a strict no-dog policy on all beaches in the Angeles district.

If the city cannot convince the superintendent to permit a dog beach, the city might have to seek an amendment to the public resources code, City officials said.

Another question for the environmentally sensitive City is whether such a park would become a source of contamination to the ocean.

Jones and her group want their dogs to have access to the water, but Heal the Bay, the Santa Monica-based environmental group, has recommended that the park be located above the high tide line to reduce the possibility of feces entering the water.

Another issue is whether a dog beach on State land would attract for dog owners from the region and possibly overwhelm the facility.

The City cannot impose residency requirements at a dog beach, the way it does at the City's off-leash dog parks, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie told the council.

In addition, the California Coastal Commission has indicated it would not approve a fenced dog beach, according to City staff.

Because dogs would be unrestrained, there is a likelihood of interaction between dogs and beachgoers, which could pose a liability problem for the City, staff warned.

Jones, however, is optimistic the issues will be resolved and hopes that Marcello and Zukie will be able to run on the beach by spring.

She points to studies she says prove that dog beaches aren't polluting and says that the few dog beaches in operation show that such facilities do not pose a threat to beachgoers.

"In Long Beach, there have been no problems with pollution from the dog beach, and the beach hasn't been overrun with dogs," Jones said.

If the dog beach project goes forward, Jones says her group will take a leading role in ridding the beach of dog droppings.

Future plans for a dog beach could include designated pathways for dogs to cross the beach bike path, and a doggie drinking fountain, Jones says.
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