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California

Restrictions on Children’s Pool beach in La Jolla are illegal, judge rules

Harbor seal pup

A rope barrier was placed at Children’s Pool Beach in La Jolla, marking the beginning of pupping season for harbor seals that make their home there.

This has been a tough week for those who have fought to keep Children’s Pool beach in La Jolla closed during seal pupping season.

An Orange County Superior Court judge ruled that San Diego’s policy to restrict access to the beach during much of winter and spring violates state and federal laws.

The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by a group called Friends of the Children’s Pool against the city and the California Coastal Commission, which approved the closures in 2014.

The fight over how to divide use of the beach between people and a colony of harbor seals has been going on since the early 1990s, when seals started using the beach as a place to rest and give birth.

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On an average summer day, dozens of seals share the beach with swimmers, divers, spearfishermen and others.

Last year, the Coastal Commission documented nearly 50 instances in which it said humans harassed the seals. Of most concern are people who scare the seals, prompting them to “flush” into the ocean and potentially causing mothers to leave behind pups too young to swim and who could be trampled in the process.

“I know it was very popular to be a champion for those poor seals, but in fact, the seals are not being harmed. They never have been,” said Ken Hunrichs, president of Friends of the Children’s Pool.

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“All we’ve ever asked was for the city to follow the law,” he added. “It makes me believe there’s a feeling of arrogance toward the citizens who may actually know a little bit more about Children’s Pool and the law than they do.”

Mayor Kevin Faulconer and City Atty. Jan Goldsmith declined to comment on the ruling, which calls for rolling back the beach-access restrictions currently in place from Dec. 15 to May 15 each year. That means Judge Frederick Horn’s decision probably won’t take effect until after this year’s seal pupping season has ended.

The city can appeal with approval of the City Council.

In the ruling, Horn found that the closure violates public access provisions in the California Coastal Act and the state’s constitution.

He also said the city can’t manage the seals at Children’s Pool without proper coordination with the federal government under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The judge also said a state land grant that transferred ownership of Children’s Pool from the state to the city required constant public access to the beach.

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The Coastal Commission released a statement Wednesday saying: “We’re reviewing the decision, but do not agree that the Marine Mammal Protection Act was intended to prevent state and local governments from establishing rules for public beaches that are intended both to protect public safety and to avoid harm to seals.”

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Bryan Pease, a private-sector attorney who has lobbied to protect the Children’s Pool seals, called Horn’s ruling a misinterpretation of federal and state laws. He filed for an injunction in federal court to block the ruling on grounds related to the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

“If the [act] preempts anything, it’s this judge’s order that the city can’t protect the seals,” Pease said.

The protected beach was created in the 1930s with the building of a 330-foot, crescent-shaped concrete sea wall. Visitors can observe the seals from a pedestrian walkway on the wall.

joshua.smith@sduniontribune.com

Smith writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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