Jako, an 8-year-old silver Labrador, splashed into a pool of water along the mouth of the Santa Ana River late Friday morning, then returned to the sand with a green tennis ball for his owner to toss. The game of fetch went back and forth until Jako stopped to greet another dog and the two ran off to play.
Jako, along with a host of other dogs both small and large, have been frolicking sans leash on the stretch of county-controlled sand since early puppyhood. But Jako and his four-legged pals are technically outlaws.
Orange County law states that off-leash dogs generally are not permitted on county-controlled beaches. However, over the years the stretch between Newport Beach and Huntington Beach has become a de facto dog beach where canine owners from all over the county go to play with their furry friends.
The dog owners want it to stay that way. And it could under a proposal by county Supervisor Michelle Steel that aims to lift the leash law in the area.
"I try to come down here with Jako every day," said Newport Shores resident Glen Davis. "We don't have backyards around here, so this is a convenient place to take our dogs and let them roam like they should."
Steel, vice chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors, is proposing that county leaders change the current ordinance so the board can designate the first official off-leash area in unincorporated Orange County since the leash restrictions were enacted in 1975.
Steel announced the idea during a news conference Friday morning at the proposed dog beach.
The Board of Supervisors will consider the ordinance change at its next meeting April 26. The plan will have to pass two board readings before the law can be changed. The earliest the leash law could be lifted is June.
"This is just common sense," Steel said. "I don't want people to be scared that if they come down here with their dogs to play that they're going to get a ticket."
The issue of leash laws on the stretch of beach came to the forefront late last year after Newport Beach Mayor Diane Dixon said she had fielded complaints from nearby homeowners about unleashed dogs and dog waste being left along the beach near homes. The city launched an online survey to determine whether Newport residents would be in favor of the city enforcing leash laws on the county property. Hundreds responded, with the majority asking the city to leave the area alone.
The area around the 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, city staff has said.
In March, after two hours of passionate testimony from dog owners who frequent the spot, the city's Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission voted unanimously to reject city staff's proposal to have city animal-control officers enforce leash restrictions there. The commission instead suggested that Orange County look into designating the area as an official dog beach.
Dixon, city staff, dog beach advocates and Steel began working on a proposal to that effect.
If the plan is approved, Dixon said, the city will put up additional signage, install doggie bag dispensers and add more trash containers along Newport's side of the beach. Newport also would consider adding a paved path to the beach to improve access, she said.
"This is a win-win," Dixon said of the proposal. "It's a way to meet residents' needs and the needs of our four-legged friends."