CITY HALL — An organization dedicated to establishing a Santa Monica dog beach where canines can scamper in the sand without a leash have been thrown a bone.

Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis and City Councilman Terry O’Day will ask their colleagues on the dais Tuesday to direct city staff to work with California State Parks on the creation of a pilot program for an off-leash dog area that would stretch from the beach down to the waterline.

The pilot program would include monitoring the sand and water for any adverse environmental effects, Davis and O’Day said. City staff would be directed to work with stakeholders, including environmental watchdog Heal the Bay and Unleash the Beach, the local nonprofit that has been calling for a dog beach for several years.

“I want to see what we can do to find a way to make this work,” O’Day said. “Obviously there are a lot of folks in the community who would like to see it happen.”

That said, there are legitimate concerns about the impact an off-leash dog area would have on other users and on water quality, O’Day and Davis said.

“That’s why we’re suggesting a pilot program so we can study the effects,” Davis said. “We want to evaluate it and see if it makes sense on a permanent basis. Other communities have done it without negative effects on water quality. I think we should give it a try.”

The effort could be difficult.

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.

Opponents say dogs can disrupt the experience of beach-goers, destroy sensitive habitat and bite people, exposing City Hall to lawsuits. And if that wasn’t enough, there are those who worry that dog feces left on the beach will negatively impact water quality.

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.

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.” (For the state report on dog beaches, go to www.library.ca.gov/crb.)

There has been no evidence of higher bacteria levels or other water quality problems relative to other city beaches, according to the report.

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 told the Daily Press in September the “dog zone,” created in 2003 by city officials, 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 last month.

It’s statements like that that have Unleash the Beach and its founder, Santa Monican Georja Umano, optimistic. Umano said the state report lends credibility to the cause.

“It’s one thing for us to make all these points on the reasons why we need a dog beach, but now that they’ve been made by the research bureau and hopefully having the support of the city, I think that puts us in a much better position,” she said.

“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

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.

kevinh@www.smdp.com

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