For years, the city of Del Mar's bark has been worse than its bite when it comes to enforcing leash laws at city beaches. But that's about to change.
On Tuesday, Sept. 4, the City Council unanimously approved changes to the rules, allowing dogs to be on the beach in the early morning hours north of 25th Street, and also directed city staff to ramp up its enforcement efforts regarding rules for walking dogs on the beach.
Until now, the city has used existing personnel such as lifeguards and the park ranger to educate the public on Del Mar's leash laws, and has operated in a "reactive" rather than a "proactive" approach, according to a staff report.
Based on the council's direction Tuesday, the city may allocate additional personnel, such as specially trained community service officers, to enforce leash laws on the beach.
"It's a wonderful aspect of Del Mar that we're dog-friendly... it's a tremendous benefit to take dogs on beach. I'm all in favor of it," said Mayor Dwight Worden. "However, we need to enforce some basic rules to make sure the beach is shared."
Specifically, Worden and other council members said the rules should be enforced so that those who want to walk on the beach when no dogs are present know when and where they should go to the beach.
Under the city's current rules, dogs are allowed off-leash from the day after Labor Day through June 15, from 29th Street north to the border with Solana Beach. Leashed dogs are allowed on that stretch of beach during the summer. From 29th Street south to Powerhouse Park, dogs are prohibited in summer and allowed on-leash during the off-season. Finally, leashed dogs are allowed year-round on the beach south of Powerhouse Park to the border of Torrey Pines State Beach.
The new rules, which take effect Oct. 4, will allow dogs off-leash year-round from dawn to 8 a.m., north of 29th Street. In addition, dogs will also be allowed off-leash from dawn to 8 a.m. in the off-season, in the area from 29th Street south to 25th Street.
At Tuesday's council meeting, some speakers urged the council to adopt stricter enforcement of leash laws, citing problems on the beach caused by loose dogs. Others urged restraint on new enforcement measures.
"For me, this is like the cart before the horse," said resident Anthony Viscardi regarding the new hours for leash-free use of the beach. "To me, the change is contingent on enforcement and not the other way around."
Another speaker said the council should opt for the least intrusive enforcement plan. On Tuesday, the council was presented with three options for enforcement, ranging from no new enforcement efforts, dubbed Option 1, to additions of new staff to patrol the beach and issue citations for leash law violations.
"I ask for Option 1, ease into this. We don't want to cause unanticipated problems in other parts of the area," said resident Scott MacDonald.
Over the next couple of months, the city will launch an educational effort, including new signs, printed handouts, an updated city web page, announcements on social media, a press release and a news conference to explain the rule changes regarding dogs on city beaches.
The second enforcement option - which the council voted to pursue following its discussion - calls for the city to use teams of staff, such as a lifeguard, park ranger, parking enforcement worker or new community service officer, to increase enforcement of leash laws in the morning as early as 6 a.m.
That option is estimated to cost $22,000 per year, according to the staff report.
The third option was to add more staff for leash enforcement at different times of the day, at an annual cost of $48,000.
The city will continue to look at enforcement options as part of a larger review of city law enforcement services that is expected to come back to the council in the coming weeks.
According to city officials, tickets for an unlicensed dog require dog owners to license their dogs, essentially a "fix-it ticket." The fine for having an unleashed dog in an area where dogs must be leashed is $285.
The city's park ranger told the council that since July, he has written 32 tickets for dog-related violations, including unleashed and unlicensed dogs. City officials said those numbers may increase when the new enforcement effort kicks in around the beginning of December.
"Be prepared when we start ticketing people for the number of people who will come down here complaining," said Councilman Dave Druker.