SM BEACH — An organization dedicated to establishing a Santa Monica dog beach where canines can scamper in the sand without a leash is gearing up for another round of lobbying.
Unleash the Beach, founded by Georja Umano, a Santa Monica resident and guardian of two dogs, will host its second fundraiser of the season this Saturday on Lincoln Boulevard with the goal of garnering more support, volunteers and cash for what is sure to be a difficult journey.
The group was heavily involved in the effort in 2005, but after a bill to establish a pilot program failed to gain approval in the Legislature, Umano took some time off to focus on her private life.
“At one point we had several politicians on our side who we thought were really going to make it happen. They kind of lost interest,” Umano said. “I had to move one with my life.”
She kept the Unleash the Beach website up and within the last year she noticed more people writing in wanting to help.
“I thought, if that’s the case, let’s give it another try and see what happens,” said Umano, who held Unleash’s first fundraiser in July at a cafe on Pier Avenue.
Saturday’s fundraiser is scheduled for 7 p.m. at The Talking Stick Coffee Lounge, 1411 Lincoln Blvd. in Venice.
A California code prohibits unleashed dogs on state beaches without an order from a California State Parks superintendent. Officials with the agency, which owns Santa Monica State Beach, have opposed any efforts by City Hall, which manages the beach, to ease rules and allow dogs on the sand.
Supporters of creating a pilot program will have to get city officials on their side first, and then use that momentum to influence State Parks, something which seems unlikely given the concerns expressed by Craig Sap, acting superintendent of the park agency’s Angeles District, and environmentalists.
Dogs, they say, can disrupt the experience of beach-goers, destroy sensitive habitat and bite people, exposing City Hall to lawsuits.
“Everyone can say that their dog is a great dog, and most are, but you can’t truly control a dog if it’s off leash,” Sap said. “Then you have the issue of use and people being on the beach, specifically kids, who may not want to interact with dogs while they are enjoying the beach.”
And if that wasn’t enough, there are those who worry that dog feces left on the beach will negatively impact water quality.
“We are already struggling at our local beaches to meet water quality standards. Adding another pollution source is not the right thing to do,” said Mark Gold, president of environmental watchdog Heal the Bay and chair of Santa Monica’s Task Force on the Environment.
Gold, whose family includes three dogs, said Heal the Bay is open to supporting a dog beach but only one that is completely fenced-off and not located in the inter-tidal zone.
“Even though 90 percent of dog owners are responsible, there’s that 10 percent who are not,” he said. “Anybody who has been to a dog park knows one owner out of 10 is not cleaning up after their pet.”
Supporters say a dog beach would promote exercise for dogs and their owners and provide a space for dog owners to meet, share information and form community bonds. They say dogs would be able to socialize and therefore be less aggressive, and the beaches would make it less likely that owners would let their pets loose in other areas, like secluded sands in Malibu.
Most of the 1,100 miles of beaches along the California coast are officially closed to dogs, however, beach-goers can legally bring their dogs to over 60 beaches up and down the coastline, according to a report by the California Research Bureau entitled “Dogs on the Beach: A Review of Regulations and Issues Affecting Dog Beaches in California.”
The report was commissioned in 2006 by then Assemblyman Ted Lieu and found nearly 20 off-leash dog beaches in California, including four in San Francisco and three in San Diego, but just one in Los Angeles County, located in Long Beach.
Despite concerns, officials there say the “dog zone,” created in 2003 by City Hall, which has ownership over the beach, as part of a pilot program, has been a success. Over 40,000 dogs visit the beach each year but there have been “maybe five reports of dog bites a year and those come from owners trying to break up dogs mixing it up,” said Jane Grobaty, a spokesperson for Long Beach’s Recreation and Parks Department.
The 2.9-acre stretch of unfenced beach along the water’s edge became permanent in 2004. Over the years, frequent water testing has recorded no change in water quality, Grobaty said.
“Overall, it’s been pretty positive,” she said. “The biggest complaint we get has to do with people who let their dogs loose before reaching the Dog Zone.”
To address liability, city official enacted “hold harmless” language for injuries or damage caused by dogs.
In Huntington Beach, a dog beach was created in 1998, primarily through the efforts of a local dog advocate. The ordinance establishing the beach requires owners to have their dogs on a leash no longer than 6 feet. Dog owners do let their dogs roam free once in the wet sand and water.
The Preservation Society of Huntington Dog Beach, a non profit, partners with the city to maintain it. The society has clean-up crews and installed 60 dog bag dispensers for owners to pick up poop.
T.J. Daly is the current president of the society and calls the dog beach “a happy place.”
“People love it, but then again you always have a small group trying to shut it down all the time,” he said.
Daly said dog bites are few and far between. It’s nothing different than in a neighborhood or in someone’s backyard.
“Dog bites can happen anywhere,” he said. “The beaches give dogs a chance to exercise so they will live longer and it’s one of the best places for them to learn social skills.”
The society is hosting a dog surfing contest on Sept. 25.
“It’s one of our busiest days of the year down there. It attracts a lot of people, which is good for the city,” Daly said.
According to the state report, the society carries a group insurance policy that covers every person on the dog beach for liability and medical expenses. City officials provide the same basic maintenance for the dog beach that they do for other city beaches.
There has been no evidence of higher bacteria levels or other water quality problems relative to other city beaches, according to the report.
Supporters say the report shows that concerns about dog beaches are overblown and are begging Santa Monica City Hall to consider a pilot program.
“We’re willing to be extremely flexible,” Umano said. “We want to show people that they don’t have to be afraid. They will see it’s going to be fine.”
Santa Monica poses a few problems. The southern side of the beach attracts many visitors, particularly on weekends, while the north side is known to be a nesting spot for the western snowy plover, a sparrow-sized, light-colored shorebird that is listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.
A pilot program could include a small section of sand — perhaps the size of a few volleyball courts — with limited hours and restricted to weekdays, Umano said.
“We really want to have the City Council mandate to staff to find a way to make it happen,” she added.
The council in 2005 supported including the city in a pilot program, but the issue has not come up since.
Mayor Richard Bloom said his dog Jackson is supportive, but he would have to do some more research before giving his endorsement.
“We had some concerns in the past and we need to pay close attention to those,” he said. “This is certainly worth discussion.”
For more information on Unleash the Beach, go to www.unleashthebeach.org. For the state report on dog beaches, go to www.library.ca.gov/crb.