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County proposing more signs, enforcement to curb use of “unofficial” dog beach at Santa Ana River to protect bird species

It’s long been used as a pup playground, a bit of county-controlled land wedged between Newport Beach and Huntington Beach where owners let their dogs frolic on the sand and splash in the surf.

But the “unofficial” dog beach has been debated for years, with the California Coastal Commission pushing Orange County officials lately to do more to keep pet owners away.



On Wednesday, July 8, the commission will consider a county proposal to add more signs to remind people the Santa Ana River flood channel that flows into the ocean at this spot is off limits to canines and to discourage owners who bring their pooches to play by educating them on the harm that could be caused to delicate bird habitats nearby.

The Least Terns, an endangered species, and the threatened Western Snowy Plover, have a dedicated sanctuary just the north to nest and breed.

Some nearby homeowners have also raised concerns over the years about the influx of dogs that roam around off leash. Last year, the county started cracking down, with Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputies ushering people away and handing out tickets to those who refused to leave.

The county in 2017 was close to making the area an official dog beach, with the Board of Supervisors voting once in favor, before finalizing the approval was halted by environmentalists who said there would be a negative impact on the nearby bird habitats.

The Coastal Commission’s enforcement staff sent a letter to county officials in June 2019 to notify them of likely Coastal Act violations and “potential impacts to sensitive bird species related to commercial dog-walking activities taking place within the mouth of the river,” the staff report for Wednesday’s meeting said.

The continued use also violates multiple existing Orange County ordinances banning people and dogs from inside of flood control channels due to safety issues, commission staff said.

Commercial dog-walking operations have also been sent warning letters by the commission to stop using the area in order to avoid further impacts to the sensitive bird species. The fenced 13-acre Huntington State Beach Least Tern natural preserve is nearby.

“The Santa Ana River mouth is relied upon by the federally and state-listed endangered California Least Tern, and the federally listed threatened Western Snowy Plover. Due to their statuses as sensitive species, both are protected under state and federal laws,” the staff report said. “The Santa Ana River mouth is used as foraging habitat for the Least Tern and the beach along this stretch of coast is foraging and roosting habitat for the Snowy Plover.”

The county is proposing more educational signs to help with protection of the endangered birds and their habitat and to continue its increased enforcement of existing “no-trespassing” and dog-leash laws to eliminate commercial dog-walking operations and discourage pet owners from using the river mouth, officials said.

Access won’t be restricted at the surround public beach areas and people will still be able to cross the channel along the wet sand at the shoreline, which is considered state land, officials said. The “River Jetties” are popular with surfers.

The Coastal Commission staff also wants an annual activity report to be required with information on the number of visits by sheriff and county staff and the number of warnings and citations given “to assess the effectiveness of the proposed signs and the effectiveness of the enforcement measures.”

Garry Brown, executive director for Orange County Coastkeeper, is an advocate of shutting the beach off to dog owners for the sake of the birds.

“They roost and have nests in those dunes. It’s not a dog beach,” he said. “Just because some private citizens want to take their dogs there, doesn’t mean it’s a dog beach and doesn’t give them a right to destroy a habitat.

“I hate to see it about dogs verses Snowy Plover or Least Terns,” he said, “but the two don’t mix, that’s just a reality.”

With the recent coronavirus shutdown, the lack of people and dogs seemed to have allowed the bird species there to thrive, he said. “It gives encouragement that if we curb it and actually establish it’s not a dog park, the endangered species will have chance to do better.”

Source: Orange County Register

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