Del Mar loosens leash on dog restrictions


Del Mar, the only city in North County to allow off-leash dogs on the beach, decided April 2 to expand the area and the hours for the animals to run free, the first change to its canine regulations in 30 years.

Del Mar residents love their dogs. For years, their pets have been allowed to run free on the beach, often in areas or at times that the regulations prohibit, and city officials have looked the other way.

But the fur began to fly last summer after a crackdown on off-leash dogs. Hundreds of pet owners signed a petition asking for new rules, and the city agreed to back off enforcement until a change could be worked out.

A compromise approved Monday, April 2, will allow dogs without leashes from dawn to 8 a.m. all year on the beach from 25th Street north to the city’s border with Solana Beach, a distance of about a half-mile. That includes the popular area known as Dog Beach along Highway 101, near the mouth of the San Dieguito River, where previously off-leash animals were not allowed at any hour during the busy summer tourist season.

Council members voted 4-1, with Terry Sinnott opposed, to draft an ordinance with the changes.

“I don’t think we’re ready to implement anything like this right now,” Sinnott said. “We are not managing our existing dog regulations in a successful way.”

People who don’t own dogs need their rights protected, as well, he said. Most dogs and their owners are well behaved, but not everyone is comfortable around dogs on the beach.

Part of the problem is that the beach is shrinking because of erosion, so there’s less room for everybody, said Councilwoman Ellie Haviland.

“Really, the long-term solution is for us to fix our beaches, get the sand back,” she said. Del Mar, like all the county’s coastal cities, depends heavily on sand restoration projects to maintain the eroding shoreline.

During winter high tides, the waves come up to the seawalls in the northern blocks of Del Mar, leaving no room for anyone to walk on the beach.

Still, the new regulations are a start, and they need to be backed up by enforcement, Haviland said.

More than a dozen speakers addressed the council on the subject April 2, and most supported the change. Many of them were long-time Del Mar residents who said they’ve been exercising their pets on the beach for decades.

“These partners of ours, they are family members you know, they mean so much to us,” said resident David Shannahoff-Khalsa, who’s been walking golden retrievers in Del Mar since 1971.

Current regulations prohibit off-leash dogs anywhere on the beach at any time during the summer.

Yet people often exercise their dogs without a leash on the sand and in the surf early in the morning when few people are around. Lifeguards are not on duty before 8 a.m., and enforcement is lax.

The only area that allows off-leash canines at all is the city’s North Beach, also known as Dog Beach, from the end of 29th Street north to the Solana Beach border. Dogs can be unrestrained there from the day after Labor Day through June 15 the next year, a total of about nine months. That rule does not change under the expansion.

People come from across the county to exercise their animals at Dog Beach. But many don’t know or choose to ignore that a leash is required in the summer, lifeguards said.

Most people will follow the rules when contacted by lifeguards, but they contact thousands of pet owners each year. The rules can be confusing and difficult to explain.

Del Mar has two other beach areas with different rules for dogs.

The Main Beach area, from 29th Street south to Powerhouse Park, does not allow dogs during the summer season from June 16 through Labor Day, and only on a leash the rest of the year.

The South Beach area, from Powerhouse Park south to Torrey Pines State Beach, requires dogs to be on leashes year round.

--Phil Diehl is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune