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An Australian shepherd runs free on a Del Mar beach. Council members agreed to extend off-leash dog rules to allow untethered canines on the beach north of 25th Street to the Solana Beach border year-round from dawn to 8 a.m. Courtesy photo
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More dog days, off-leash hours coming to Del Mar beaches

DEL MAR — Every dog will soon have its day — 365 of them, in fact — to run free on a portion of Del Mar’s beaches. Council members at the April 2 meeting agreed to allow off-leash canines on the beach north of 25th Street to the Solana Beach border year-round from dawn to 8 a.m.

“Dogs are family members and there’s a significant segment of our population that this is why they live here,” Mayor Dwight Worden said. “And if we can make it work and in a sharing way … and mitigate the problems, I think we should do it.

“If it doesn’t work we’ll repeal it or we’ll scale up the enforcement until we make it work,” Worden added.

Until the changes are adopted, current regulations remain in place, with enforcement continuing as a low priority. However, when the new rules take effect, either in several months or by the end of the year, enforcement in the early morning hours will be stepped up.

Existing rules are as follows:

– On North Beach, also known as Dog Beach, from 29th Street to the Solana Beach border, dogs can run off-leash under the control of their owner from the day after Labor Day through June 15, but they must be leashed from June 16 through Labor Day.

– On the main beach area, from the northern end of Powerhouse Park to 29th Street, tethered dogs are allowed from the day after Labor Day through June 15, but completely prohibited from June 16 through Labor Day.

– From Powerhouse Park south to Torrey Pines State Beach at Sixth Street, canines must be leashed 365 days a year.

Last summer three residents submitted a petition signed by approximately 2,000 people — about 185 of them residents — asking the city to allow unleashed dogs on the beach north of 20th Street and leashed dogs north of Seagrove Park, from dawn until 8 a.m. on a year-round basis.

“Currently, during the summer, there are no sections of the beach where dogs are allowed unleashed,” the petition states. “Historically, residents have used the early-morning hours to visit the beach for this purpose, with few complaints.”

The petition also notes the extended hours are necessary because the beach north of 29th Street is inaccessible during high tides, while there is always walkable beach north of 20th Street.

When the topic was discussed at a council meeting last August, most people who weighed in supported the proposal, which council members agreed to on a trial basis. They directed staff to look into the issue and, while doing that, relax enforcement.

Eunjee Viscardi was one of three speakers who opposed the changes.

She said she had been attacked by dogs more than once during the previous three months, and when she complained she said was verbally and physically assaulted by some dog owners.

At this month’s meeting, she said things have improved.

“They changed their ways,” she said. “In the past they let the dog chase you. But they don’t do that anymore. They tend to be more respectful, so I appreciate that.”

While about two-thirds of the approximately three dozen people who sent emails and all but one of the more than a dozen speakers support the changes, Viscardi and others said they still have concerns.

Brian Fletcher wrote in an email that he has seen vicious dog attacks and has had to tell people to keep their voices down and stop their dogs from barking in front of his home at 5 a.m.

Adrienne Viehmann, who said she walks her dog on the beach daily, noted that canines can be dangerous, unpredictable and leave behind waste.

Staff’s analysis during the past eight or nine months found impacts that include public safety, enforcement, noise, additional dog waste, beach access due to tides, parking and equitable beach use for people who prefer not to be around dogs.

While staff and council members said most of those issues could be mitigated, Councilman Terry Sinnott said he is open to expanding off-leash times and areas, but not right now.

“I don’t think we’re ready to implement anything like this,” he said. “What happens at Dog Beach right now is not five-star. It’s not very good. … We can’t even enforce our own rules as it is.

“We need to work longer on how we educate and enforcement of our rules,” he added. “We need to demonstrate we can do that.”

Sinnott said he believes Del Mar residents “will make things work,” but he has concerns about the many people who come to the city specifically to let their dogs run free on its beaches.

“I’m not worried about our folks,” he said. “I think they would really, really do a good job. If it was just them I think it would be doable. I think there’s some aspect of the dog owner population that would sour the whole thing for everybody else. And I’m worried about how we enforce our rules with them.”

To address those concerns, his colleagues agreed to augment the current level of enforcement with a focus on early morning coverage before 8 a.m.

Community service officers will be added, with shifts staring before lifeguards are on duty at 8 a.m. in the summer and an hour later in the winter. The plan is to have additional coverage, at an annual cost of about $22,000, intermittently three days a week for three hours a day.

The city currently issues about 50 citations a year and lifeguards make approximately 2,500 contacts to educate people on the rules.

Council members opted to limit the expanded off-leash time to one stretch of beach to make it less confusing for dog owners and easier for enforcement.

The time it takes to implement the new rules depends on the level of administrative work that will need to be completed, such as an environmental review, creation of a new ordinance and possibly acquiring a permit from the California Coastal Commission.

Councilwoman Ellie Haviland said she would prefer to avoid the latter. She said the agency could ultimately decide to review all rules for dogs on the beaches, “potentially scaling back the current liberties we have.”

“If we lose our identity as having one of the best dog beaches in Southern California — and having that as, I think, a key identity of our city — that to me is something that I’m not willing to risk,” she said, adding that “the potential loss from that is too big of a hit to our city.”