Walking along the beach in her home town of Santa Monica used to be one of Georja Umano’s favorite activities, but without the companionship of her 14-year-old Jack Russell Terrier, she’d rather do something else.
While Umano loves going to the beach, she knows her dog Marcello is also quite fond of the shoreline where he can chase after balls, and is disheartened that she can’t legally bring him along with her.
“One of the reasons I moved to Santa Monica was because I love the beach. I used to walk on the beach and I was totally bummed out when I got my dog and realized I couldn’t walk my dog on the beach,” said Umano, who has another dog, Roxie, and has lived in Santa Monica since 1982.
Dog owners who wish to take their pets off-leash to a state beach like in Santa Monica are prohibited to do so under a state code unless they receive written authorization from a California Department of Parks and Recreation district superintendent, department spokesman Roy Stearns said.
While there are reportedly dozens of beaches across the state with designated areas for leashed or unleashed dogs, the only location along 75 miles of Los Angeles County coastline where dogs can legally play untethered is a nearly 3-acre site in Long Beach.
Umano and other dog lovers have been wanting to change that for several years, and after a prior effort failed to receive state approval, they are reinitiating their campaign for a pilot program establishing an off-leash beach area in Santa Monica.
“We love the beach, which is one of the best assets of our city, and we love our dogs. Our dogs are a part of our family and we don’t want to go to the beach without our dogs,” Umano said of the reasons her organization Unleash the Beach is again pushing for a pilot program.
Santa Monica resident Jean McCoy, who has three dogs and owns a local pet boutique, said she has seen overwhelming enthusiasm for the opportunity to let dogs play freely on a section of the beach.
“We’re living in this fantastic beach community and an incredible pet loving community but we don’t have a place to take dogs on the beach,” she said.
A campaign for a second off-leash dog beach in the county was also initiated previously by the Venice-based organization Freeplay at Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey. The pilot program backed by the late Assemblyman Mike Gordon passed the Assembly but failed in the state Senate in 2005.
Though prior efforts have fallen short, Umano believes her group laid the groundwork for a new campaign and they have been garnering strong support from the community, including members of the City Council.
Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis and Councilman Terry O’Day presented a request at the Oct. 25 meeting that staff be directed to work with the state to establish, on a pilot basis, an off-leash area for dogs on the beach and down to the waterline. The program would include monitoring the beach and water for any environmental effects. Staff would also be encouraged to work with the stakeholders, including Unleash the Beach, on the specifics of the program.
Councilman Kevin McKeown, who supported the initiative in the past, believes there could be some flexibility on the new proposal at the state level, but noted that environmental and safety concerns will need to be addressed.
“I made the last council motion for a dog beach pilot program back in January 2005, so I’m a tail-waggin’ supporter of controlled beach access for dogs accompanied by responsible guardians,” McKeown said.
“A pilot program, probably on the underutilized north section of our beach, will need to prove that the dog-owning community can protect and respect wildlife, water quality, the environment, other beach users and neighbors. We know there are challenges, but they’re worth exploring to see if we can’t extend the wonderful shared resource of the state beach for new recreational opportunities.”
Opponents to the off-leash dog beach movement have pointed to concerns of impacts on the environment and potential health and safety issues for beach visitors.
In a letter to the City Council, Heal the Bay President Mark Gold and Joel Reynolds, local director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that adding a new source of fecal bacteria from dogs at beaches would increase the frequency of water quality standards violations. The presence of dogs could also be harmful to endangered birds such as the California Least Tern.
“Santa Monica has no greater economic or environmental resource than its coastal beaches, and they must be protected,” they wrote. “Our city has an obligation to protect the health of the countless swimmers that utilize the stretch of Santa Monica beach each year.”
Stearns of the state parks department said that although most dog owners are responsible and will clean up after their pet, there are some who are not. One of the reasons state regulations prohibit unleashed dogs on beaches is to ensure the safety and enjoyment of other visitors, he noted.
“If there are a lot of dogs urinating on the beach where people are lying or there are children playing it does become a problem, and if it’s a crowded beach with dogs it could be something that people who don’t have dogs may not like,” Stearns said.
He said the local superintendent would have to review the specific proposal from the city to determine if the department would consider the pilot program.
Unleash the Beach hopes to start the pilot to show that it can work, and they are flexible in regards to the exact area of the beach it would be offered and the operating hours, Umano said.
In response to complaints of impacts from a dog beach, Umano pointed to a 2006 California Research Bureau study on the designated dog areas across the state that found no major differences in bacteria levels as other beaches. The study additionally reported no serious safety issues at the dog beaches, she said.
“It’s already been proven by the history of other dog beaches,” said Umano, expressing confidence in the success of a pilot program.
McCoy doesn’t believe that dog waste will become a major problem at any possible off-leash site because pet owners know the importance of having a clean recreational area.
“You are going to want to take your dog to a clean beach so at the end of the day it’s healthier for your pet,” she said.
Canine lovers tout that designated unleashed zones provide not only a place for the four-legged to exercise freely, but for their owners to socialize amongst each other.
“The most important thing a dog gets is unbounded exercise, and it’s therapeutic for a lot of dogs,” said Clint Ehlers, president of Dog Beach Now, which supports a pilot program in the Santa Monica Bay area. “I’ve never seen one unhappy dog running on the beach.”
McCoy believes a beach section for dogs can also create additional revenue for the city by bringing in more visitors who will likely patronize various businesses while they’re in town.
“It will make this a pet destination, which is phenomenal because there are tons of pet owners who want to be able to spend time and do things with their pets,” she said.