An Orange County supervisors vote on establishing the first legal dog beach on county land has been halted indefinitely over concerns that having unleashed canines in the area could harm two at-risk bird species.
The Board of Supervisors last week delayed voting on the second reading of an ordinance that would change county law to permit off-leash dogs along a stretch of sand straddling the Newport Beach and Huntington Beach border at the Santa Ana River mouth.
The delay came about two weeks after county leaders unanimously approved the first reading of the ordinance, which would designate the land as the first official parcel for off-leash dogs in unincorporated Orange County since leash restrictions were first enacted in 1975.
Though there is no official designation, the beach has long been a popular spot for owners to let their dogs run free.
Following the board's first vote in late April, the Irvine-based Sea & Sage Audubon Society and the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy sent letters to the county calling for the supervisors to reconsider because the land is a nesting site for the endangered California least tern and a winter roosting spot for the threatened western snowy plover.
"We are not opposed to changing dog access laws in more appropriate locations and, in fact, are in support of the dog beach currently operating in Huntington Beach," wrote Victor Leipzig, president of the Sea & Sage Audubon Society. "Public access and enjoyment of the beach is very important to us; however, some of the most critical beach habitat for birds that remain in Southern California exists at river mouths."
Michelle Cook, communications director for Supervisor Michelle Steel, said Monday that county staff is looking into the groups' concerns and has not yet made a determination about the possible environmental effects of allowing dogs in the area.
Cook said staff eventually will meet with the groups to discuss the issue. It is unclear when county supervisors will again consider the ordinance.
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 would favor the city enforcing county leash laws at that beach. Hundreds of people responded, with the majority asking the city to leave the area alone.
The river mouth isn't regularly patrolled, so it's difficult for county sheriff's deputies to cite dog owners who aren't following the rules, city staff said.
In March, after two hours of passionate testimony from dog owners who frequent the spot, Newport'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 the county look into designating the area as an official dog beach.
Dixon, city staff, dog beach advocates and Steel, who represents Newport Beach on the Board of Supervisors, began working on a proposal to that effect.
In the meantime, dogs can be found frolicking on the sand and in the water.
Leipzig said the population of California least terns has increased by a few thousand since it was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1970. But the increase isn't enough to remove it from the list, he said.
A fenced preserve on the Huntington Beach side of the Santa Ana River provides a place for the birds to nest without disturbance from terrestrial predators, Leipzig said. They also use the beach and river mouth to court, bathe, teach their young to fly and forage for fish, he said.
The western snowy plover, which at one point nested in the area, now uses the river mouth for foraging and resting, Leipzig said. The bird is on the federal list of threatened species.
An endangered species is considered at risk of extinction. A threatened species is considered at risk of becoming endangered.
Leipzig fears the introduction of more people and dogs in the area could disrupt the presence of both species.
"The impacts to the birds is very real," he said.
The Newport Beach City Council is expected to consider next Tuesday whether to move forward with discussions about the city changing the fencing and adding pathways, more dog waste bags and trash cans in the area to accommodate dog owners.
Newport council candidate and dog beach advocate Mike Glenn said he's confident the county will move forward with changing the law, despite the delay.
"I don't anticipate we'll get anything in the next round except for a unanimous vote," he said. "The dogs are already in the area. It's not like we're talking about introducing dogs when they had never been there before."