Environment News

Dogs on the Beach?

October 11, 2012

With every chair in the chamber filled, people began lining up along the wall. Those arriving late to the Santa Rosa Island Authority meeting last night would have to listen from the lobby.

The big draw? The board’s first public hearing regarding the possibility of allowing dogs on the beach. SRIA Chairman Dave Pavlock scanned the gallery.

“I noticed there were some dogs in here,” he said, noting that pets were not allowed inside the SRIA meeting hall.

Currently, dogs are not allowed anywhere on Pensacola Beach. Pet owners that allow their dogs to play on the sand or swim in the surf risk a hefty fine.

The crowd at the SRIA meeting was there to discuss resident Karen Sindell’s notion that certain area’s of the beach should be designated as dog-friendly. Sindell had approached the board in August and was now back with a presentation.

“This is a plan that has been put together with a lot of research and input,” she told the SRIA board, adding that she had made the rounds to local law enforcement and health officials to discuss the concept.

Sindell’s plan basically entails opening Park East and Park West to dogs from sunrise until 10 a.m. She’s proposing opening both the gulf and sound sides of Park East, but only the gulf side at Park West. During turtle and bird nesting season there would be leash requirements.

In her presentation to the SRIA, Sindell listed a number of other counties in the state that allow for dogs on the beach and urged the board to consider doing the same.

“It does work does work in other communities,” she said.

The crowd in attendance appeared to lean in favor of allowing dogs, though a number of people spoke out against the possibility. Among their concerns were impacts to the beach—both environmental and social—and the self-policing nature of Sindell’s suggested guidelines.

“I think it’s bad enough that we had BP oil washing up on our beach,” said Rachael Buchanan. “I don’t think we should have to deal with anything else.”

Others argued that dogs on the beach would be a welcome change to the current ban. They told the board that people likely to bring their dogs to the beach would most likely  be “responsible” pet owners that would bag waste and observe whatever guidelines were in place.

“We ought to give this some serious thought,” urged one man.

Sandy Dickerson, who owns a pet boutique in downtown Pensacola, said she often has customers ask where they can take their dogs on the beach.

“When I saw it in the paper I was so excited,” she said, “because we have been talking about this for quite a while.”

Tina Wright, a 17-year beach resident requested the SRIA consider allowing dogs and also took issue with the notion that dog waste would have serious impact to the beach or water quality.

“As far as waste, let’s get rid of all the animals on the beach,” she joked, noting that wildlife already contributed to the natural environment. “Let’s talk reality here.”

Members of the SRIA board said they wanted to see further information on the subject before the second public hearing in November. There was talk about the need to hire staff to oversee the dog areas, and the possibility to require users to obtain a permit from the island authority.

Board member Elwyn Guernsey described himself as a “dog lover,” but said he was concerned how dogs might impact the environmentally sensitive beach and the SRIA’s efforts to market it as a ‘eco-tourism’ destination.

“I don’t think I would use the beach for my dogs, although my daughter in California has,” he said. “She would be pounding on the table, arguing that we should allow this.”

Guernsey also questioned how much cost would be involved and suggested pet owners who violated any guidelines be “fined significantly.”

“I don’t think anybody has given any idea of how much this is going to cost us,” he said.

Board member Fred Gant agreed with Guernsey, advising that the board needed to explore both the costs and impact of allowing dogs on the beach.

“I’m still open to the idea,” he said, “but I need more information before I consider it seriously.”

One board member, Tammy Bohannon, was fully in favor of the concept. She felt it was inline with eco-tourism and that a majority of pet owners would be respectful.

“When I think of eco-tourism, I think of animals,” she said. “Animals are part of nature. I actually think it enhances the direction insofar as eco-tourism”

Bohannon told her fellow board members that it was time the SRIA allow dogs.

“We’ll police it, control it and allow it,” she said. “Personally, I think it’s time for us to give this a shot.”

Board member Thomas Campanella said he would research the matter and bring information to the November hearing, while Vernon Prather suggested the SRIA get an official stance from the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, as well as the Pensacola Beach Advocates.

SRIA Executive Director Buck Lee advised that some areas of the beach being proposed fell outside of the body’s jurisdiction. There are areas federally designated—the Gulf Islands National Seashore—and also an area owned by the University of West Florida.

The SRIA will conduct a second public hearing Nov. 14. The issue will then go before the Escambia County Commission.

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