for the dogs
by Whitney Wilde
A short cruise south of Santa Cruz, tail-waggers run free at beaches in Monterey and Carmel. In Santa Cruz, there is only one legal off-leash beach, city-owned Mitchell’s Cove. It has “dog hours” (before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.), and the pungent aroma of rotting seaweed. Most state beaches allow leashed dogs, but a few forbid Fido completely–particularly those on the rural north county coastline that have banned pooches in order to protect snowy plover habitat.
That may change if the precocious new pup, LOOLA, has its way. LOOLA (Live Oak Off Leash Advocates) is working hard to get an official off-leash beach in the Live Oak area of Santa Cruz. For almost 30 years, dogs havefreely frolicked along the surf line from 20th Avenue County Beach to Moran Lake, alongside skimboarders, surfers, and beachgoers of all ages.
Starting January 2012, Animal Control Services (ACS) began rigorously enforcing the leash law on all county beaches. Suddenly treated like scofflaws, some Live Oak dog guardians started a revolution with an online petition, informative posters, and a one-day event called “Occupy Dog Beach.”
“For me, it is all about community,” explained Marion Morris. “There are so many people that I don’t see anymore since Pippin and I now slink around like criminals.”
Within a month, five Live Oak dog guardians had met for the first time at a local coffee cafe to discuss their separate efforts and see if they could pool their passion. They did not agree on all the details – but unanimously desired a preservation of the off-leash tradition at their neighborhood beach.
Within days, they had agreed on a name: LOOLA. Three weeks later, a general meeting was held to educate other local dog guardians about the issue, what was happening, and what they could do to help (including a letter-writing campaign to local government representatives).
The first step was communication: a Facebook page for general announcements and a Yahoo group for member discussions (and ACS sightings). The website was created, with information on the issue, what you can do to help, and how to buy LOOLA swag (like their fabulous t-shirts).
A contest was held among members to design the t-shirt artwork, and everyone voted for their favorite. The blue t-shirts make LOOLA members easily recognizable at county meetings and they stimulate discussion with other pooch parents on the beach.
Through Save Our Shores, the local admin for the California Coastal Commission Adopt-a-Beach program, LOOLA officially adopted 20th Avenue County Beach. They have held five beach clean-ups, recently picking up almost 75 pounds of trash one Saturday morning. This shows LOOLA cares about and takes responsibility for “their” beach.
IT’S A DOG FIGHT
Since this is a Santa Cruz County beach, there are many meetings: Animal Shelter Board, Parks & Rec Commission, Board of Supervisors, and individual meetings with Live Oak District Supervisor John Leopold. At each meeting, LOOLA members speak about why an off-leash beach is needed and why it is important to them personally. The opposition also speaks at every meeting. They declare that off-leash dogs have knocked people down, urinated on sand castles, chased seabirds, eaten picnics, and scared children. They complain that people are not picking up their dogs’ poop or are leaving the bags of poop on the beach to wash out with the tide. While we dog people know those things might occasionally happen, it highlights how the bad behavior by a very few can affect so many responsible dog guardians.
In April 2012, LOOLA members attended the Animal Shelter Board meeting to request an end to the citations, and the creation of an official off-leash beach. Shelter Director Melanie Sobel and Animal Control Officer Todd Stosuy gave their recommendation that supported more off-leash areas and suggested nearby Sunny Cove as an off-leash beach. The board chose not to act, but to pass the issue on to the Parks & Rec Commission (P&R).
LOOLA members created a comprehensive 1500+-page proposal that was presented in June 2013 to the P&R Commission. Included is a plan for an off-leash beach with proposed rules, signage, pertinent legislation, existing successful dog beaches, and much more.
In response, the P&R Commission formed a task force to see if a plan could be created that would satisfy all parties. It consisted of three LOOLA members, three from the opposition, and two P&R Commissioners. After much debate at three meetings, it was a stalemate. While LOOLA offered compromises, such as “dog hours,” the opposition refused any compromise at all, saying dogs allowed on-leash is already a compromise.
Recently, ACS and Todd Stosuy have devised an alternative citation system. Officers have the discretion to write off-leash offenders an infraction citation with a $200+ fine, or give an administrative citation that starts at $50 ($25 if paid within 24 hours). Money from admin citations directly supports programs at the Animal Shelter.
CAN CANINES COEXIST?
As part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (covering 275 miles from Marin to San Luis Obispo), this is a protected environment. Like Carmel, this is an “urban” beach with high traffic: skim boarders, surfers, tourists, and local beachgoers. If an off-leash beach is planned, it will likely have to pass through the California Coastal Commission and have some form of EIR (Environmental Impact Report). This could take years.
There are seabirds that nest here. This year, four killdeer chicks hatched and fledged, with more currently hatching—while leashless hounds happily played (illegally) on the same beach. LOOLA designed (and offered to provide) signs to alert visitors to the location of nesting areas and submitted them to the Parks Department.
BECOMING A BIG DOG
LOOLA’s petition currently has over 4,000 signatures (online and paper). Almost 200 active members are guided by a core group of a dozen dedicated dog defenders. In the 2014 Good Times poll for the Best of Santa Cruz County, LOOLA was voted runner-up for Best Activist Group. The local newspaper claims off-leash dogs was their hottest topic last year.
When the County Parks Department wants to know something about dog parks/beaches, they contact LOOLA. The Parks Department is currently working on a proposal for more off-leash areas throughout the county, to be presented in October to the Board of Supervisors. No one knows whether that will include an off-leash beach.
Win or lose, this issue has created a much stronger canine community in Live Oak. Regardless of the outcome, neighbors have gotten to know each other and friendships have formed. The beach receives regular clean-ups. All pawsitives! We all wait, impatiently, to see what happens next.
Whitney Wilde was involved in Downtown Santa Cruz becoming dog-friendly, has visited every off-leash beach in California, and been a LOOLA advisor. www.dogola.org