Until I adopted my little rescue dog, Stasha, I had no idea what kind of passion people had for their pets.
That passion is flaring up over an unofficial dog beach by the Santa Ana River jetty where dogs play off leash.
In a December Daily Pilot article Newport Mayor Diane Dixon said she had received dozens of complaints from residents, which prompted the city to look into the issue.
The area, between Newport Beach and Huntington Beach, is considered county land. But the county has shown interest in allowing Newport to enforce county leash laws on that stretch of sand, according to the Pilot article.
Now, I don't have a dog in this fight, as it were, since Stasha isn't fond of sand or swimming. And at first blush, this issue might seem trivial. But mess with dog owners and fur starts flying.
With Dixon's concerns about the lack of enforcement regarding leash laws, one of her most vocal critics, resident Mike Glenn, jumped into the fray.
As of Tuesday, Glenn's "Save Newport" Facebook petition had 3,570 signatures in favor of preserving the unofficial dog beach as it is.
Glenn also questioned how many complaints Dixon has received.
"When Dixon tells people that she has received dozens of emails from residents seeking relief, the implication is perfectly clear: Citizens are emailing her in droves," he writes.
Glenn asked the city for those emails. Those that came back covered her city account, as well as one from a private account. [Update: 9:45 a.m.: This article initially stated all of the emails that Glenn reviewed were from the mayor's public account].
Looking at the city emails, I saw only one, from Stephanie, last name redacted. The West Newport resident complains about the 20-odd dog owners who take up parking on her street, their barking dogs and poop. She's written about a dozen times to both Dixon and previous Councilman Mike Henn.
My impression is that her issue was more about parking and noise.
I emailed Dixon for comment, asking to see any of the dozens of emails she received.
She didn't produce any but wrote back, saying she has been "contacted by phone, email and at my town halls by several residents, some repeatedly over the past two years, complaining about the lack of enforcement of the regulations about dogs on the beach."
"Residents believe there may be health, safety and public nuisance implications," she says.
The verdict is still out on the health issues. Though Newport hasn't done a study of the site — the beach is on county land, after all — a comprehensive state report in 2006 found no evidence of water-quality issues or lawsuits related to dog beaches.
Dixon says she has no preconceived outcome in mind and is not contemplating seeking any specific city action at this point. She wants to hear more from residents and "better understand the issues."
I asked City Manager Dave Kiff about any complaints he's received.
A dog owner, he says he's seen "just a handful of emails over the years from a few people concerned about off-leash dogs at the Santa Ana River mouth."
And since many complaints don't come to him, he's unsure how many the city has received. Regardless, the county does not allow dogs on its beaches, or in the water, leashed or not.
"The reason that the river mouth is an off-leash haven is, in large part, because there is no enforcement of the county prohibition," he says.
The city manager says the majority of good dog owners carry poop bags, though a minority do not.
Kiff "tends to support dog beaches and fun dog opportunities." If it were up to him, he'd allow them "everywhere."
An initial survey, albeit one that is unscientific, published on the city's Facebook page shows support for the dog beach as is.
The day I checked, 167 respondents were in favor, 27 weren't. The majority felt that the only visitors who should be policed are those who fail to pick up their dog's poop.
Kiff tells me there could be a positive outcome if the city and county designated the mouth of the Santa Ana River an off-leash area, making it legal.
Since the land is owned by the Orange County Flood Control District, and the river is controlled by the State Lands Commission, this could be hard to accomplish. Dealing with multiple bureaucracies is never simple.
I see two possible scenarios.
The flood district is continually doing work there and will need to have access, especially in an El Niño year.
And then there are liability issues, dog bites and such, to work out. The city and county would need a clear understanding.
Newport could ask Supervisor Michelle Steel to champion the issue or approach Orange County Public Works for a lease or permit. A simple agreement allowing the city to operate the area shouldn't be out of the question.
There are solutions here, but common sense isn't so common these days when it comes to city government.