The idea of a six-month leash-free dog beach trial period came to an abrupt halt after several residents living by the site location voiced their concerns at Wednesday evening’s City Council meeting.
Leash-free dogs and the mixture of everyday beach use by residents, visitors, tourists and attendees of YMCA Camp Surf and the Imperial Beach Junior Lifeguard Program as well as a local designation of the test area as a “Children’s Beach” resulted in Council reversing its support of a trial period between Palm and Carnation Avenues.
After much discussion and public comment, Council voted unanimously to direct city staff to explore previously proposed and new possible sites within city limits and away from the beach. To read more about the issue check out item 3.1 in the meeting’s agenda.
Areas of consideration before include Veteran’s Park, navy land on the corner of 9th Street and Carnation Avenue and an empty lot on Holly.
Erin Fitch, a resident since 1975, said the city needs a dog park and encouraged those in opposition to go to an established dog park and see how successful they are. She said dogs on-leash are naturally antagonistic when meeting other dogs.
“Dogs truly seem to know how to get along with each other,” Fitch said. “Even more so without leashes. I hope this moves forward. I don’t think we have much to lose but a lot to gain.”
Opposing the trial, John Warner said there is a grandmother named “BeBe” in his neighborhood gave him a riddle the other day that made him think.
“Where does a Rottweiler take a crap on the beach? Anywhere he wants,” Warner said.
He said the relevant point is there are good dog owners but conversely many irresponsible dog owners. Warner said he helped gather more than 60 signatures in a couple of afternoons from residents opposed to a dog beach in the area. He said every petitioner had his or her own story about dog encounters on the beach. “Injuries ranged from broken bones, bruises and bites to just abject fear,” he said.
Warner said the San Diego County Department of Animal Services reports 2,700-dog bites annually. He said it is essential that protection of the public be priority. He said BeBe calls that area “Children’s Beach” and it’s where she loves to take her granddaughter to play.
“If the city adopts an ordinance to compromise the health and wellbeing of this granddaughter, in the words of Bebe, ‘That would be dumber than ditchwater,’” he said. “You don’t want to litigate, you don’t want to mitigate. You don’t want to mess with an angry granny from Texas.”
Kimball Dodds said considering the idea of turning unleashed dogs loose on the beach is not smart or reasonable. State law exempts the city from liability from dog bites, placing full responsibility on the dog owner, he said.
“I would argue that poor planning with equally poor enforcement would not exonerate the city legally or morally when we have intentionally created a situation that does not address the potential for injury or loss of life,” he said.
Dodds said with thousands of dog bite reports in the county yearly, laws requiring leashes reduce the amounts of injuries. He said other dog parks and beaches in the county provide fenced in areas or natural barriers that protect the public and this proposal offers none of those safeguards and that dog issues could detract lifeguards from their primary purpose or raise the potential for injury during peak hours. A leash-free dog beach, Dodds said, is unacceptable.
“The idea of letting dogs loose in this area at any time conflicts with the traditional use of this area and introduces a situation of unreasonable hazard,” he said. “Before we establish any new test periods, we need to assess the current situation. Beach use is popular and crowding is an issue.”
Shannon Johnson, a resident, dog owner and representative of a group supporting the trial period called IB Yappy said it has collected more than 700 signatures in support of an off-leash dog park. There are approximately 1,200 licensed dogs in the city and IB Yappy has held monthly publicly advertised meetings so far and previously found little opposition.
“We have been working proactively with the city to provide us residents with a safe and healthy area for their dogs to run leash-free,” she said. “We take our commitments very seriously and have worked with whatever the city has put forth.”
Johnson said they went beyond their commitments and have support from local businesses to raise awareness, collect signatures and money to support an off-leash site.
The group Ocean Blue also agreed to provide more dog-waste bags dispensers in the area. If approved, IB Grommin’, West Coast Cafe and Seacoast Pet Clinic are strong supporters of IB Yappy’s mission, she said.
Johnson said it is evident after speaking with several opponents that they had never been to any leash-free dog park.
“If they had they would realize that dogs are there to play with each other and not attack or molest human beings,” she said. “I would like to remind everyone that this is a trial, which means we are testing its suitability and usefulness. Leash-free dog areas make a better city with better neighbors, because well exercised dogs are less likely to create a nuisance, bark excessively and destroy property.”
Dick Howe is a resident on Ocean Lane and said even with leash laws, dogs run freely and continuously come to his front door from the beach. He said owners seldom follow their dogs but rather yell from the beach as his family and friends “are subjected” to the presence of unknown dogs.
“Free ranging dogs will cause families and visitors to stay away at a time when the city needs visitors to help financially,” he said.
“As far as I know there are no dog beaches in California with residences located right next to them,” he said. “Please find a location that does not negatively impact those of us who live adjacent to the proposed site. The beaches of Imperial Beach are our greatest assets and should be treated as such.”
Candy Unger spoke as a resident of Ocean Lane and member of IB Yappy and said that originally IB Yappy proposed a dog park off the beach within the city.
When staff came back with recommendation of this area of the beach, she immediately began to address her concerns with this location at the monthly meetings.
After speaking with members of the group and researching dog beaches, Unger said she put her own reservations about this location aside and did what she believed to be in the best interest of the city and the hundreds asking for an off-leash area.
“My main concern with dogs off the leash at the beach is by far safety,” Unger said. “Since development of the Old Palm Avenue street end, it seems our side of the beach, north of the jetty, has become more frequented by beach goers. During the summer, there can be thousands of people on the beach, many of them families with children. Crowded beaches with kids running and screaming, along with dogs off-leash, doesn’t seem like a good combination for anyone, especially lifeguards.”
Unger proposed specific hours for dog owners to utilize the beach early in the morning and later in the evening, to avoid crowded beach populations. She said a split shift of 6 a.m.-9 a.m. and 4 p.m.-8 p.m. is a reasonable alternative, and could avoid conflicts with the rest of the beach population, junior lifeguards and Camp Surf. “Having set hours would be a win-win situation for everyone,” she said.
Unger said an off-leash dog beach will attract more visitors to the city and that more visitors equals more revenue.
“I think we should give the trial period and the people of Imperial Beach the opportunity to test the viability of such a project,” she said.
Unger said to help mitigate the cost to the city she designed a flyer for IB Yappy’s dog beach ambassadors and volunteers to pass out on the beach to help educate visitors. The flyer contains information about the pilot program, rules of the off-leash area, important phone numbers, location map and tips for dog owner’s on their first visit. Unger left ad space on the flyer in hopes to generate money to pay for the flyers. She said along with the handout ambassadors will be educated on several dog beach topics to help the public learn the rules.
There are plans to team up with the local high school looking to fill their fulfillment for community service hours needed to graduate. IB Yappy is in contact with dog trainers and food suppliers to give classes at local businesses on dog park etiquette.
“This type of information and resources provided to the public will help make for a safe, fun and healthy trip to the beach for our dog owners,” said Unger.
Councilman Ed Spriggs said there is a large group of dog owners in the city and views are different on each side. He said the night’s discussion brought something to the table that the community had to come to grips with.
“The one thing that strikes me as important here is the proposed area for this pilot program is a multiple use area,” he said. “There is really no way to separate the dogs from beach users in this area and this is not something that I really thought about until hearing the pros and cons this evening.”
Spriggs said the fact that other dog beaches and the parks in other areas are away from residences is a second important point. Spriggs said as long as there is the issue of multiple uses there is the potential for conflict that is reason for concern.
Councilman Jim King said the ability to separate the leash-free area from the public is essential. He said the dog parks and beaches he visited separated parks from other public uses. Camp Surf and the Junior Lifeguard program are also a concern and the conflicts might be impossible to address, he said.
“At this juncture, I tend not to be able to favor this because of the issues addressed here this evening,” King said. “In particular, the separation issue presents an insurmountable problem.”
Councilwoman Lorie Bragg said from the get-go she has supported a dog park in the area, but, since the beginning, she opposed this location due to its open location to the public.
Bragg spoke to Camp Surf regarding the trial period and said their employees had no problem with dogs on their beach though they travel down the beach daily. There are no records of dog bites and fights in their part of the beach.
Camp Surf’s lifeguards do all the policing and its largest problem is marijuana smoking and teenage sex on the beach.
“Through the week, Camp Surf hosts 500 participants daily during the week and 250 on weekends,” Bragg said. “They take two trips a day from the camp to the estuary, walking all along the beach. So far they have no problems with that, but if they do they are prepared to go around the test area.”
But due to the location and its openness to the public, Bragg said she could not support this trial period at all.
Mayor Pro Tem Brian Bilbray said he is the “odd man out” again and understands the concerns that everyone has on the issue but could not just say no, because of what could happen.
“I still feel that we should go ahead and try this. It is not my top spot for the location, but this is still our only spot and I support it all the way,” he said.
Janney said he could not push for this trial period in this area because of residences in the area.
“The biggest thing here is that people live right on top of this beach,” Janney said, the owner of two dogs himself. “I think that changes the way that we look at it.”
Janney said the size of the beach has limitations and he is disappointed this is not working out as planned. He said the residential part of this makes it difficult to support.
“When we look at what we do in this community, we have to consider the immediate effects to what we are doing to next door neighbors,” he said. “I don’t know if we are going to be able to find anything else.”
Spriggs said Council needed more time to think about this before voting. He said Unger’s proposal of times was something he is willing to consider.
“Considering it is still an experiment, drastically limiting the times to diffuse the mixed use conflict are reasons for further thought and discussion,” he said.
Bragg said she was not ready to “put this issue to bed, yet” and believes a site off the beach is possible with the many recommendations from the public and staff.
“If we could bring back our list of optional sites,” she said “I think we still need to give this a bit more of due diligence.”