The Santa Monica City Council wants to use a portion of Santa Monica State Beach for off-leash dogs.

The City Council adopted a resolution Tuesday, February 28th, in support of establishing an off-leash dog beach pilot program at the beach.

Councilmembers voted to direct city staff to write a letter to the California State Senate, expressing the City Council’s position favoring State Assembly Bill 359, which would bring an off-leash dog beach pilot program to Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey.

State legislation is required because the California Department of Parks and Recreation prohibits dogs on state beaches in Los Angeles County.

The City Council wants an amendment to the bill — authored by the late Assemblyman Mike Gordon — which would include an off-leash dog beach pilot program at Santa Monica State Beach.

The bill was approved by the State Assembly in April last year and is now pending in the State Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee.

Assemblyman Ted Lieu — who replaced Gordon as assemblyman in the 53rd District, which encompasses an area from West Los Angeles to Lomita — asked the California Research Bureau to assess existing dog beaches in the state before agreeing to move the legislation forward.

“Several people spoke during the public comment period of the [City of Santa Monica] Budget Community Priorities Public Hearing in support of the establishment of a dog beach in Santa Monica,” said Barbara Stinchfield, director of the Santa Monica Community and Cultural Services Department.

“Staff has pursued the development of an off-leash dog beach in Santa Monica, but to date, the state does not have provisions that would allow the establishment of an off-leash dog beach,” she said.

A 25-year operating agreement between the City of Santa Monica and the California Department of Parks and Recreation — which is set to expire in December — does not give the city the authority to establish an off-leash dog beach on the state beach.

Although the California Department of Parks and Recreation owns Santa Monica State Beach, the city is in charge of beach and recreation services and preserving the beach’s natural and cultural resources.

California Department of Parks and Recreation officials told the Santa Monica City Council that the state “strictly enforces a no dogs policy on all state beaches in the Angeles District including Santa Monica State Beach.”

An off-leash dog beach would not be allowed in Santa Monica under the terms of a new operating agreement unless Assembly Bill 359 is signed into law and the state parks department is forced to make an exception.

Assembly Bill 359 authorizes the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the California Coastal Commission, Los Angeles County, and the City of Los Angeles to enter into a memorandum of agreement to establish and evaluate a one-year, off-leash dog beach pilot program at Dockweiler State Beach.

If legislators agree to an amendment, the City of Santa Monica would be included in the memorandum of agreement.

The proposed state legislation would have costs for the pilot programs in Playa del Rey and Santa Monica that would be funded by private sources.

The bill calls for signs to be posted notifying beachgoers using the off-leash dog areas that the government agencies involved are free from liability.

Another provision in the bill prohibits dog beaches in any area that serves as a habitat for endangered species.

The California Department of Parks and Recreation, Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors, Los Angeles County lifeguards, Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society, Heal the Bay, and the Natural Resources Defense Council oppose the bill.

“Los Angeles County has not directly opposed the bill, but several groups, including Beaches and Harbors submitted concerns to the County Board of Supervisors,” said Dusty Crane, a spokeswoman for the Department of Beaches and Harbors.

“The Board of Supervisors has not formally reviewed the bill, but Beaches and Harbors has the same concerns that State Parks has — which are health and safety,” Crane said.

The California Department of Park and Recreation lists a variety of reasons for opposing the bill, such as:

n Off-leash dogs are a potential threat to the safety of beachgoers, other dogs, wildlife, and beach employees;

n Off-leash dogs get in the way of people who want to use the beach for recreational activities;

n Los Angeles County lifeguards would have to “police” dogs on the beach, which would distract them from their primary duties to protect swimmers;

n Feces would create pollution because not all dog owners have a strong sense of responsibility about waste;

n The California Department of Health Services prohibits pets on any beach that has been designated for swimming; and

n The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified Dockweiler State Beach and Santa Monica State Beach as habitat for the western snowy plover, which is federally listed as a threatened species.

Dockweiler State Beach has been identified as “critical” habitat for the Western snowy plover, while 18 snowy plovers have been reportedly observed using Santa Monica State Beach as a winter habitat.

Ron Schafer, California Parks and Recreation Angeles District superintendent, told Elaine Polachek, open space manager for the City of Santa Monica, in a long letter that an off-leash dog beach in Santa Monica may violate the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

“State Parks’ verbal and written information shared with the City of Santa Monica regarding western snowy plover concerns constitutes formal noticing,” Schafer wrote.

“If U.S. Fish and Wildlife determines that the city has granted privileges that result in the ‘take’ of a state and/or federally listed species, the city can be held criminally and civilly liable.”

Schafer said “take” refers to the killing of a member of a protected species and also means action that allows or causes harassment or prevents or interferes with feeding, wintering, nesting, or other activities needed for the survival of a protected species.

He also wrote that protected marine mammals in Santa Monica Bay often become sick or injured or suffer fatigue and could choose to rest on Santa Monica State Beach.

“Off-leash dogs would pose a threat to these mammals and could cause them to re-enter the ocean before they are able to survive,” Schafer wrote to Polachek.

Santa Monica City Council members said they have reviewed the environmental concerns.

“I very much respect the expression of concerns from environmental organizations, several of which I have worked with over the years,” said Councilman Kevin McKeown. “At the same time, experience in other locations indicates that a dog beach operated responsibly may have undetectable negative environmental impacts.

“One reason Santa Monica is considering a limited-term pilot program is to assess what the real-world environmental data will be,” McKeown said.

Assembly Bill 359 would require that an evaluation of the one-year off-leash dog beach pilot program be made midway through the program.

Supporters of the bill such as Freeplay, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and other animal organizations cite 57 successful, city-operated off-leash dog beaches in California.

Los Angeles County has only one off-leash dog beach — the Long Beach Dog Zone at a beach owned by the City of Long Beach.

The Long Beach Dog Zone began as a pilot program before Long Beach city officials agreed to implement the dog beach on an ongoing, seasonal basis.

Huntington Beach and San Diego also have city-owned off-leash dog beaches.

Santa Monica’s resolution to support Assembly Bill 359 states that off-leash dog beaches are good for both dogs and dog owners.

“Years of experience with designated dog beaches up and down the coast of California have shown that, properly managed, these beaches can be an important resource for dogs and their guardians while posing no threat to other beachgoers or the environment,” the Santa Monica City Council wrote in its resolution.

“Off-leash dog recreation areas have been shown to be healthier for dogs, improving their fitness and reducing their aggressiveness, while offering their human guardians an opportunity to exercise as well,” the resolution said.

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