Huntington Beach dog ban a bone of contention

Six-year-old Jazzy strolls along Main Street with her owner in downtown Huntington Beach on Sept. 22, 2009, during Tuesday night Surf City Nights. Dogs are no longer welcome to walk along the street near the food vendors at the weekly Surf City Nights, a move that is causing howls of outrage.
Six-year-old Jazzy strolls along Main Street with her owner in downtown Huntington Beach on Sept. 22, 2009, during Tuesday night Surf City Nights. Dogs are no longer welcome to walk along the street near the food vendors at the weekly Surf City Nights, a move that is causing howls of outrage.
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

Nobody would ever call Huntington Beach anti-dog. Far from it.

The city has a mile-plus stretch of beach where dogs can frolic, catch some rays and, if they’re of a mind to, surf. A cafe in a city park has a dog menu. At least two major hotels provide doggy beds. It has a great veterinarian-to-dog ratio. The city takes to dogs like Seattle does to clouds.

No surprise, then, that Huntington Beach is the reigning “DogTown USA” among mid-sized cities, as chosen this year by Dog Fancy magazine.

But there is the matter of Tuesday nights on Main Street.

Signs posted now inform man’s best friends that they are canine non grata between 5 and 9 p.m. Tuesdays, also known as “Surf City Nights.”

Now in its third year, it’s a weekly event at which farmers market vendors sell their goods next to restaurateurs and other merchants over a three-block area downtown and -- there’s no way to put this nicely -- some folks just wish our four-legged friends would stay home for the evening.

It’s nothing personal, insists Connie Pedenko, executive director of the Business Improvement District, a nonprofit group that oversees Surf Nights and has to keep city officials and vendors happy.

The farmers market manager “really doesn’t care, but in the last year many complaints went directly to the city and back to us about dogs,” Pedenko says. Some people didn’t want dogs around the food, and at least one parent complained to City Hall after a dog made a move on a food sample being held by her young child.

As a result, the city asked the improvement district to post signs reminding people that there are long-standing rules saying dogs shouldn’t be within 20 feet of food.

Those regulations, of course, have been largely ignored over the years. It’s not uncommon in Huntington Beach to see a dog lolling at the foot of its owner eating a cheeseburger or a quesadilla at a downtown restaurant. Some cafes routinely bring out a bowl of water for customers’ dogs.

Another problem -- and perhaps the main one, Pedenko says -- is that the Tuesday night street scene has become a huge draw. Crowds are packed tightly, and the occasional canine standoff can upset the humans if they suddenly find themselves in proximity to one.

It all adds up to an urban dilemma: What does a dog-friendly town do when some people don’t want dogs around?

Pedenko knows the dog culture is ingrained in the city. But when City Hall orders, she must march. And when vendors reminded some people of the dog ban, they were chastised by the dog owners. That’s when Pedenko decided in recent weeks that this was a police chore, and they got the job of informing dog owners of the ordinance.

An officer working the crowd recently said he’s telling people that dogs aren’t allowed on Main Street during the Tuesday night event. He’s not giving tickets, he said, but is hoping they won’t bring the dogs back next time.

Does the ordinance put police in a tough spot? “Very much so,” said the officer, who asked not to be identified because he’s not an official spokesman for the department. “It’s a tough situation.”

Mario Estrada, a 36-year-old Huntington Beach resident, brought his English bulldog, Leonidas, an apparent crowd favorite, with him on a recent Tuesday.

“I wish I could take my dog everywhere with me,” Estrada said, “but I understand they’re going to make a mess. I understand the health reasons why they’re doing this, but it’s not going to stop me from taking my dog out.”

He said Leonidas is well-behaved, but Estrada conceded that his previous dog had a habit of grabbing water bottles out of people’s hands: “He just thought it was a chew toy.”

Nicole Dielo was selecting potatoes from a vendor’s wares, along with Friday, her bichon frise companion. She brought the dog once, saw the signs, left him home the next time, then noticed everyone else was bringing their dogs. So, she brought him again.

“Openly flaunting the rules,” Dielo joked, although she doesn’t see herself as a bad citizen. She doesn’t like the idea of not being able to stroll Main Street with her dog and said, “I appreciate the fact our city takes a blind eye” to the ordinance -- that is, she said, as long as the dogs are behaving themselves and not fouling the food.

Randy Young, a farmers market veteran who sells cakes and other goodies at his booth, said he’d “never had a problem with dogs here,” adding that the bigger problem over the years has been people who don’t responsibly handle their dogs.

“If I see a dog is going to be a problem, I ask the people to keep it out there,” he said, pointing away from his display stand. “I’m a big kid. I can tell people, ‘Back up your dog.’ ”

He agrees that the city can’t have dogs disrupting food preparation on the street or allow them inside restaurants. But, he said, “This is a street in a town. It’s not like we’re taking a parking lot on private property. This is a public thoroughfare. How can you tell someone they can’t walk their dog down the sidewalk if they live here?”

Pedenko gets it. She really does. She’s even coined a phrase that may catch on: “It has caused so much controversy,” she says, “that I’m torn between what’s right and what’s right.”

Pedenko wants peace on Main Street. “I think possibly this may die on the vine,” she says, hopefully. “Now that people are more aware, they’ll be more responsible and understanding and it will lessen the number of dogs downtown.”

On a recent Tuesday night, an unofficial count indicated that no more than 10 dogs were on the street at any time.

That’s progress to Pedenko, but please do not think of her as anti-dog. Come Halloween night, she says, her group will hold a dog costume contest as part of the festivities.

To be held where?

On Main Street, of course.