Orange County leaders on Tuesday began paving the way for the sand bar at the mouth of the Santa Ana River to become an official dog beach.
In a unanimous vote Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors approved the first reading of an ordinance that would change county law to permit off-leash dogs along the stretch of sand straddling the Newport Beach and Huntington Beach border.
If the ordinance passes the board's second reading in May, the area — which over the years has become a de-facto dog beach — will be designated as the first official off-leash parcel in unincorporated Orange County since leash restrictions were first enacted in 1975.
The earliest the leash law could be lifted is June.
"The dog park has been there for so many years," said Supervisor Michelle Steel, who initiated the change. "This is just common sense. When you go out there and look at them, those dogs are free. There are so many happy dogs there."
The issue of leash laws at the Santa Ana River mouth came to the forefront late last year after Newport Beach Mayor Diane Dixon said she was fielding complaints from nearby homeowners about unleashed dogs and dog waste.
In response, the city conducted an online survey to determine whether Newport residents favored the city enforcing the county leash laws. Hundreds responded, with the majority asking the city to leave the area alone.
The river mouth isn't regularly patrolled, so it's difficult for sheriff's deputies to cite owners who aren't following the rules, city staff have 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 a proposal to have city animal-control officers enforce leash restrictions there. The commission instead suggested that the county look into designating the area as an official dog beach.
In response, Dixon, city staff, dog beach advocates and Steel, who represents Newport, began working on a proposal to that effect.
The issue has been an emotional one, pitting dog lovers who frequent the beach against West Newport residents who oppose the off-leash zone idea.
Vivien Hyman — who lives at Summit Street and Seashore Drive in a home overlooking the river mouth — raised concerns about off-leash dogs harming water quality and posing a threat to public safety. Hyman has said that she's been chased by dogs, stepped in their feces and seen them run from their owners and into her garage.
"This is a public beach. It's for the public; it's not for dogs," Hyman said Tuesday.
If the proposal passes the supervisors' second reading, the city has indicated it will put up additional signage, install doggie bag dispensers and add more trash containers along its side of the beach.
Newport also would consider adding a paved path to improve access, officials have said.
Newport council candidate and dog beach advocate Mike Glenn, who has led the effort to preserve the beach as dog-friendly, celebrated the board's vote Tuesday.
"This area has always been a dog beach," he said. "There were a few squeaky wheels who bent the ear of people who weren't aware of the history. We have some really fantastic momentum and I look forward to the next council meeting on the subject."