During my tenure as Communications Director at local nonprofit Heal the Bay, one question from the community popped up constantly: Why can’t Santa Monica have a dog beach?

I’ve been reminded of the contentious debate lately during my pandemic-relief walks. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen more pooches than ever on local beaches. Laissez-faire lifeguards usually look the other way as Fido and Fifi frolic near their towers. In these strange and constrictive times, we all seek a bit of escape – even our four-legged friends.

Technically, no canines are allowed on the beach here – leash or not. But dozens of cities in California have embraced dog-friendly shorelines, from Newport Beach to Sausalito. So pet owners naturally wonder why Santa Monica can’t mark off a small section of sand for them too. Zealots frequently bark about the subject on inflammatory Nextdoor threads.

In fact, the Santa Monica City Council voted 6-1 in 2011 to pilot a dog park. But that plan fizzled quickly. The reason why is linked to a dynamic that most residents don’t understand: We don’t control our beaches. The State of California does.

Santa Monica State Beach is managed by Sacramento’s parks unit, which forbids canines on the vast majority of sandy shorelines. So that means the nearest “official” dog beach for Santa Monica remains Rosie’s in Long Beach.

The push to create a dog beach in Santa Monica became a hot potato for Heal the Bay during my time there. Supporters begged us to weigh in on various proposals. We wound up losing donors because of our steadfast objections.

Our staff scientists argued that dog beaches are fundamentally a bad idea in Santa Monica. Too much chance for bacteria-laden waste to be left on the beach to sicken swimmers. Too many canines running amok and terrorizing bird populations, especially the already stressed snowy plover.

From a policy point of view, I understood. If we fought Hyperion to keep E. coli out of the surf, why would we allow dogs to possibly foul the shoreline? Especially as the City had spent years and millions to clean up its historically polluted beaches.

But my contrarian side called. I have surfed many times along the Huntington Beach cliffs, where mutts scamper at a sanctioned dog beach along the water’s edge. My family spends a lot of time in picturesque Carmel Beach, where pets also run free on the sugar-like sand amid all the tourists.

It’s surprising to see how well-mannered the animals seem off leash. It’s remarkably quiet at a dog beach. Free to run to their hearts’ content, they exhibit little of the anxiety that I associate with Santa Monica’s vaguely depressing canine parks. Dogs on the beach seem like prisoners let out of their cells, who know to not mess up a good thing.

Maybe I’m a Pollyanna. But I don’t hear of dysentery outbreaks in HB or Carmel. The dog owners act responsibly, and everyone seems to get along. I’ve never seen droppings left on the sand, nor any threatening behavior from dogs or their handlers. I’m sure others have tales to tell about jerky owners or dogs menacing people. I’m just relating my experience.

During our Heal the Bay debates about dog beaches, I’d be one of the few voices saying we should keep an open mind. Which is a bit surprising – as I’m really not a dog lover. To tell the truth, I don’t really like dogs all that much. (Don’t tell my rescue-loving wife please!). As the “marketing guy,” I thought it might actually be good for business – to show we were flexible. But I didn’t set policy (thankfully) and that was that. End of discussion.

The one concession staff would consider: a dog-run area in the Sahara-like stretch of sand north of the Pier. It would have to be located hundreds of feet from the ocean and be completely bound by fencing. But that seemed like inviting Spring Breakers to come to New Orleans but then telling them they couldn’t party in the French Quarter. Not much fun there! The idea never really took hold.

I have no burning desire to bring a canine to the beach. I have no dog in this fight, as the saying goes. And my former colleagues probably want to ex-communicate me for raising this topic yet again. But I do feel for those owners who want to commune in nature with their furry friends. It seems like some accommodation could be made here — restricting hours (weekdays at sunrise or sunset) or locations (some stretches of ocean north of the Pier that rarely see meaningful numbers of ocean users).

Covid-19 has led some policymakers to rethink long-held practices about our open spaces, to be more flexible. But the reality is that dog lovers in town are barking up a tall tree. State officials can be as inscrutable as Kremlin bureaucrats.

Some of our city’s well-connected canine lovers might be able to unleash their influence. Maybe the machers can get on the phone with Gov. Newsom and try to set the dogs free. But something tells me he’s got bigger things on his mind.

Editor’s Note:

This is the first in what will be a new regular column for the Daily Press. Matthew King is the former Communications Director for Heal the Bay, a current communications consultant and a lifetime fan of local beaches.