Unofficial Talk About the Unofficial Dog Beach

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Stella, 1, a rescued mixed breed pup from Newport Beach plays off leash on the beach near the Santa Ana River mouth on Thursday. — Photo by Sara Hall ©
Stella, 1, a rescued mixed breed pup from Newport Beach plays off leash on the beach near the Santa Ana River mouth last year.
— Photo by Sara Hall ©

Although there was not an item officially on the agenda Tuesday night, a number of people spoke up at the Newport Beach City Council meeting about the de facto dog beach at the mouth of the Santa Ana River.

During public comment on non-agenda items, 17 people spoke, most in support, of the small stretch of beach where dogs have been playing off-leash unofficially for many years.

The rules that govern the strip of sand dubbed “Doggy Disneyland” surrounding the flood channel have been under discussion and review for a more than a year.  

The sand surrounding the Santa Ana River mouth is under the jurisdiction of Orange County, which does not allow dogs (on or off leash) on the beach. The area borders the city of Newport Beach, which only allows on-leash dogs on the adjacent beach before 10 a.m. or after 4:30 p.m.

Last March, nearly 200 people attended a meeting where the city Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission voted to recommend studying the possibility of making the area legal for off-leash dogs.

In April 2016, the Orange County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to amend the law regarding the restraint of dogs on public property to allow the county to designate off-leash areas for dogs. The approved resolution specifically applied to the unincorporated property at the outlet of the Santa Ana River.

Board Vice Chair Michelle Steel, whose district covers Newport Beach, proposed the item last year and previously publicly supported the idea. She questioned how people can put a leash on dogs when they want to run and play in the water, as dogs should. It’s a great area for both the dogs and their owners, she added.

Indie (right), a 6-month-old golden retriever and husky mix from Huntington Beach, runs with Zardalo, a 1-year-old chow chow and poodle mix from Rancho Santa Margarita as they play on the beach near the Santa Ana River mouth on Thursday. — Photo by Sara Hall ©
Indie (right), a 6-month-old golden retriever and husky mix from Huntington Beach, runs with Zardalo, a 1-year-old chow chow and poodle mix from Rancho Santa Margarita as they play on the beach near the Santa Ana River mouth last year.
— Photo by Sara Hall ©

“This is just common sense,” Steel said at the time. “I don’t want dog owners to worry about getting tickets that were never given out in the last 40 years anyway.”

Steel or her office did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

The item was scheduled to have a second reading by the OC Board of Supervisors on May 10 and go into effect 30 days later.

They were “proceeding down a path” to allow the to be a legally designated off-leash area, but they never had a second reading of the ordinance, Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff confirmed Tuesday.

“Allegedly, that’s in part because a number of conservation groups, including the [California] Coastal Commission, weighed in and said that the environmental review isn’t adequate and there could be a tendency on the Coastal Commission to actually deny that kind of use, were that to go through a coastal development permit process,” Kiff explained.

Kiff understands that the OC Board of Supervisors has “tabled the item indefinitely.”

“The city didn’t have a dog in that fight, so to speak,” Kiff said,

They did put up some new “fairly friendly” A-frame signage, Kiff said, reminding people of the law on the Newport Beach side, they don’t say anything about the county side, he pointed out.

The city will not be enforcing their ordinances on county property, Kiff confirmed.

Supporters showed up to the Tuesday meeting wearing “Save Dog Beach” hats and spoke passionately to save the space for their four-legged friends.

They called the spot a “home away from home” for their dogs. It’s a great form of exercise and socialization. Supporters also argued that the city and county should side with the majority who want the dog beach, rather than the few who oppose it.

Jennie Stokley said when she previously lived in Newport and now, living in Huntington, she has taken her dogs to that area for many years. It was never an issue, she said.

The wildlife is still thriving and making it official wouldn’t change that, she argued. The water is dirty, but the dogs don’t care, she added.

“Who would want to be there but dogs?” questioned Laurie Buratto, who has lived near the de facto dog beach for about 30 years.

As a neighbor in the area, even before she became a dog owner, she never cared that other dogs were on that stretch of beach. Both the dogs and the birds have been there, simultaneously, for many years, she pointed out.

Off leash dogs and their owners walk along the unofficial dog beach at the Santa Ana River mouth. — Photo by Sara Hall ©
Off leash dogs and their owners walk along the unofficial dog beach at the Santa Ana River mouth.
— Photo by Sara Hall ©

The people who don’t pick up after their dogs are the same people who don’t pick up their other trash, she pointed out. There are always a few bad people, she noted.

Many noted that this issues has already gone though the PB&R and county approval process and that it was “not right” to suddenly be stalled now.

“Everything was looking good and we felt confident that the details would be worked out,” noted Balboa Island resident Tim Hamilton.

There are several thousand people who are “pro-dog beach” and have been fighting for it, he said.

It’s about keeping city beaches safe for all people, dogs and endangered species, Councilwoman Diane Dixon explained later this week in an email.

“I believe that significant evidence and opposition have come forward in recent months concerning the flood control area at the mouth of the Santa Ana River that could and should preclude that area’s use as an off-leash area for dogs,” she wrote “I say that as a loyal dog owner (40 years as golden retriever owners) who understands the desire to allow a dog to run free.”

She outlined a few main concerns, including that several nonprofit groups and public agencies recently raised environmental concerns regarding the nearby nesting and foraging areas for the California least tern and other birds.

“This area has been designated for many years as environmentally sensitive,” Dixon wrote.

Vic Leipzig, Huntington Beach resident and president of the Sea and Sage Audubon Society (the Orange County chapter of the National Audubon Society) raised some of those serious environmental concerns at the meeting Tuesday.

The society is “vigorously opposed” to the county changing it’s ordinances that currently prohibit dogs at the mouth of the Santa Ana River, he said.

Looking up and down the entire Orange County coastline, “the worst single spot, from a habitat point of view, that you could possibly pick would be the mouth of the Santa Ana River.”

Dachshund-beagle mixes Cash (left) and Brownie play on the beach near the Santa Ana River mouth on Saturday after a press conference from local officials about making the area an official dog beach. — Photo by Sara Hall ©
Dachshund-beagle mixes Cash (left) and Brownie play on the beach near the Santa Ana River mouth last year after a press conference from local officials about making the area an official dog beach.
— Photo by Sara Hall ©

There is sensitive habitats on both sides of the river, he explained, the least tern nesting colony on the Huntington Beach side and western snowy plover established critical habitat area on the Newport Beach side. The channel itself is also a critical habitat for both of those species, he added.

“We look for your support in finding better solutions than a dog beach at the mouth of the Santa Ana River.”

Bruce Boyd, a resident who said he represents about 100 west Newport households and some environmental organizations but didn’t specify, agreed during Tuesday‘s meeting.

“We’re not anti-dog, we’re pro-environment,” Boyd said.

There is a lot of misrepresented and incorrect information out there, he added.

“There is no official dog beach area,” he said. “It’s not there.”

It’s just pitting dog owners against the city, county and the neighbors in the community.

In her email after the meeting, Dixon also pointed out that there is a “passionate group” of about 100 neighbors in the area who have indicated a number of issues with unruly dogs, dog owners who violate the city’s leash and time-of-use laws for the beach, and people who don’t pick up after their dogs.

“To lock horns against adjacent property owners, environmental groups and other controlling jurisdictions is a costly and unnecessary fool’s errand,” Dixon wrote. “Let’s focus on solutions that are real, safe and doable.”

She noted that “the area remains somewhat dangerous, as it is a flood control channel,” and that strong tidal flows can be a dangerous problem.

Dixon also pointed out that owners have other options, including area dog parks and the dog beach up the highway in Huntington Beach. The city will also soon be reviewing concept plans for a dog park across from Sunset Ridge Park.

“A new dog park a short distance away from the dangerous flood channel, environmentally sensitive areas and residential property is a win-win solution,” Dixon wrote. “I’m convinced our four-legged population will be thrilled, plus there will be parking and other visitor-serving amenities for owners and other visitors.”

Indie (left), a 6-month-old golden retriever and husky mix from Huntington Beach runs along the beach with Stella, a 1-year-old rescued mixed breed pup from Newport Beach, near the Santa Ana River mouth on Thursday — Photo by Sara Hall ©
Indie (left), a 6-month-old golden retriever and husky mix from Huntington Beach runs along the beach with Stella, a 1-year-old rescued mixed breed pup from Newport Beach, near the Santa Ana River mouth last year.
— Photo by Sara Hall ©
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1 COMMENT

  1. I can understand the concern for environmental impact and habitats, but where exactly is this “habitat” for the birds? I frequent that area of beach , and never once have I seen a nesting bird, anywhere around the mouth of the riverbed. I’m just curious, what/how will be impacted by simply changing a law? We all know, it’s a fact, that this has been used as a “dog beach” for 40 some years now? How does changing a law on paper, change the impact on the beach? Simply put, it doesn’t! Even if they refuse to legalize it, people are still going to bring their dogs there, and the city isn’t going to enforce the leash law, how does any of this even matter?
    I think people are going to continue to use the beach, with their dogs, off leash. This whole agenda is just silly.