Del Mar drawing up new rules for dogs on beach

Lilly, left, looks at another dog at Dog Beach in Del Mar in June.
(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

It’s a conundrum that has hounded city officials, beachgoers and dog owners for years: Del Mar’s long-standing practice of dogs running free along the oceanfront is in open violation of the city’s own rules.

And now, after an especially contentious summer at the beach — which some residents likened to a “war zone” — new rules are taking shape that would divide the beach during the early-morning hours, with dogs allowed off-leash in the north end of the beach and banned altogether in the south.

For a city eager to maintain its reputation for dog-friendliness, the conflict has struck a deep nerve, forcing the city council to take steps to codify ways to accommodate competing interests that have for years co-existed without following the letter of the law.

The issue flared early this summer after a woman walking the beach was allegedly attacked by dogs and assaulted by their owner, according to a police report. The incident prompted police intervention and set off an uptick in citations. Dog owners responded with a petition that has garnered more than 1,500 signatures. It calls on Del Mar to let dogs be off-leash from dawn to 8 a.m. from 20th Street north to the mouth of the San Dieguito River. From 20th Street south to the northern end of Powerhouse Park, dogs would need to be on leashes. No dogs would be allowed south of that. Existing rules would remain in place after 8 a.m.

More than a dozen dog owners brought their case to the city council on Monday, Aug. 7 in an outpouring of emotion that included a letter light-heartedly written in the voice of one resident’s dog promising, in part, to share the beach with everyone except for cats.

“People have been walking their dogs for decades and even generations,” said Scott MacDonald, who started the petition. “I would argue that taking dogs to the beach is almost part of Del Mar’s culture.”

The city council was unanimous in directing staff to draft amendments to the city code per the petition’s request. But the council also made clear that the city’s answer must consider a broader framework of restriction and enforcement.

Councilman Dave Druker — who runs on the beach every day, has a son who breeds dogs, and who served on the council when the city changed its dog rules in the late 1990s — pointed out that while this summer hit a flashpoint, it is not an isolated or unheard-of circumstance.

“This has been a huge complaint, dogs off the leash on the beach. I’ve heard this a whole lot,” he said. “This is not something that is just one single person saying there’s a problem here. It is our job as council to ensure that there is beach access for everyone and not to treat any special class of people as having more ability to access the beach than anyone else. Everybody’s got to be taken care of.”

He suggested the possibility of adding sand to 25th, 27th and 29th streets so that the beach there can be kept open for dogs during high tides. He also called on city staff to look into dog rules and enforcement at Seagrove Park and Powerhouse Park.

It’s a situation that’s long been in need of rectifying, said Mayor Terry Sinnott.

“Right now at Dog Beach, everybody’s supposed to be on a leash,” he said. “They’re not on a leash; nobody’s on a leash. So we have an enforcement problem.”

With the focus falling on the minority of irresponsible dog owners, he called on responsible owners to help their cause by policing themselves better. Leaders of the petition launched to do just that, as a way to encourage compliance and communicate problems among themselves and with the city.

Sinnott also stressed the need to not move forward on new rules without a clear sense of how to enforce them.

“The thing I worry about is when you put regulations in place, I mean give me a break, regulations don’t mean anything unless there’s a practical way to observe, understand and enforce the issue,” he said. “I think we’re kind of ragged in that area.”

For Anthony Viscardi, husband of the woman who was allegedly attacked, the proposed measures won’t resolve the problems posed by the few bad owners. Expanding the range for dogs will only make the beach less safe and increase the city’s liability, he said.

“You can draw the line wherever you want; people will ignore it,” he said. “They will not follow the rules.”