Dog owners who take their furry friends to a stretch of county-controlled sand adjacent to the mouth of the Santa Ana River rejoiced Tuesday night after the Newport Beach parks commission rejected a proposal to have city animal control officers enforce dog restrictions in the area, instead indicating that Orange County should look into legalizing dogs there.
The Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission's unanimous vote followed two hours of passionate testimony from more than 40 dog owners who frequent the spot, between Newport Beach and Huntington Beach.
"It's a little gem," Newport Shores resident George Lesley said of the area. "It's like a doggy Disneyland — it's the happiest place on Earth for our dogs. Leave it alone."
On a typical day, several dogs — some off leash — can be seen running and playing on the sand and swimming in the water near the river mouth. Visitors say the area is unlike any in Newport — a place where their dogs can run free. The nearest designated dog beach, where pets are free to roam the sand sans leash, is in Huntington Beach off Goldenwest Street.
But in the past several months, some nearby residents have complained about the animals being off leash and owners failing to pick up waste. About four people indicated during public comment Tuesday that they would be in favor of the city patrolling the area.
Newport resident Vivien Hyman said that while she, her husband and young daughter are dog owners, she isn't in favor of the area remaining a de facto dog beach where canines can run off leash. She said she's been chased by dogs in the area, stepped in dog poop and seen canines run away from their owners into her garage.
"We have the leash law because we need to protect our families and our children," she said. "The people here tonight want to continue to break the law."
County law states that dogs generally are not permitted on county-controlled beaches, including the area near the mouth of the Santa Ana River. However, many beachgoers and dog owners said at Tuesday's meeting that they were unaware of that because signage in the area is contradictory.
The area around the Santa Ana River site isn't regularly patrolled by the Orange County Sheriff's Department, so it's difficult for deputies to patrol it and cite people who aren't following the rules, according to a city staff report.
In response to some residents' concerns, Newport officials asked city staff and the Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission to study the issue and consider recommending that the city enter an agreement with the county that would allow the Newport Beach Police Department to enforce the rules at the site. The City Council, which has final say on the matter, will take up the issue at a future meeting.
If the council agrees with the commission's recommendation, it could ask the county Board of Supervisors to consider a resolution allowing dogs in that area, according to county code.
Dogs are permitted on city beaches only before 10 a.m. and after 4:30 p.m., and they must be on a leash. The Police Department patrols the city-controlled area next to the county beach once a day on average, according to Lt. Tom Fischbacher.
Several parks commissioners indicated the city should not take on additional patrol areas when there's much noncompliance on city-controlled beaches.
"We're never going to get 100% compliance, but that doesn't mean the laws aren't being enforced" at city beaches, Fischbacher said.