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Seeking sites for Rover to roam

Dog lovers advocate for more places on beaches in L.A. County where canines can cavort off-leash.

August 25, 2011|Tony Barboza

The Los Angeles County coastline stretches 75 miles, but only a few blocks are for the dogs.

With a three-acre "dog zone" in Long Beach the only place where canines can legally run off-leash, many local dog lovers drive outside the county to take their pets for a romp on the sand. Still others risk tickets by sneaking their pups to out-of-view beaches in Malibu, Playa del Rey or the South Bay and letting them run free.

But now there's talk of change. Canine aficionados want to carve out a few more spots of L.A. County waterfront for the four-legged.

A group called Unleash the Beach has started raising funds to push for a dog beach in Santa Monica. Another organization, Freeplay, is rallying support for a dog zone at Dockweiler State Beach. And the city of Rancho Palos Verdes is studying whether to create an official off-leash dog area on a five-acre beach it recently acquired below the Trump National Golf Course.

Most of their proposals are modest: a small patch of sand to be used on a trial basis.

"If we just got as much space as the volleyball players, we'd be happy," said Georja Umano, founder of Unleash the Beach, who believes that the shoreline is the only place Marcello, her 14-year-old Jack Russell terrier, still acts like the playful, ball-crazy puppy he used to be. "It comes down to a question of fair usage of public beaches."

It won't be easy, though, to convince local and state officials that a bunch of untethered dogs will be good stewards of the sand and surf.

A California code prohibits unleashed dogs on state beaches without an order from a California State Parks superintendent, an agency spokesman said, and none have given such permission statewide.

Officials with the agency, which owns Santa Monica State Beach and Dockweiler, said they will oppose any efforts by L.A. County or the city of Santa Monica, which manage those beaches, to relax the rules and allow dogs on the sand.

Parks officials say the barking, roughhousing and mess that dogs can bring make for an unsafe and unwelcome environment for others.

Dogs, they say, prey on snowy plover and other protected shorebirds and sometimes harass marine life. Beach authorities also worry that dog feces, if not cleaned up, would foul waters that already have poor quality.

"Most dog owners are responsible, but when a dog is off leash, there's no way to maintain control of it," said Craig Sap, acting superintendent of the park agency's Angeles District. "I understand it's worked in other areas, but for us it's not something we want to entertain."

Dog lovers along the Los Angeles coast have fought previously for more beach space.

In 2005, the state Assembly passed a bill that would have designated a pilot off-leash dog zone at Dockweiler, but the measure died in the state Senate.

A state report commissioned in 2006 by then-Assemblyman Ted Lieu found nearly 20 off-leash dog beaches in California, including four in San Francisco and three in San Diego, but just the one in the state's most populous county.

Many dog owners are frustrated that so much of Los Angeles' sweeping shoreline is off limits.

"I live by the beach, yet I can't take my dog," said Heidi Kleis, a Santa Monica special education teacher who lets her two Pomeranians loose on the beach only when she occasionally drives an hour to Long Beach or the popular Huntington Dog Beach in Orange County. "My companion animal isn't welcome to do the activities I enjoy."

The campaign by Kleis and other activists is just beginning. They've been having informal discussions with Santa Monica's beach administrator but have not drafted a detailed proposal.

Last month, Unleash the Beach members held a fundraiser at a coffeehouse a few blocks from the beach. They sipped wine as a jazz quartet performed and dog washes and gift baskets were raffled off. A lawyer in a dog suit worked the room to drum up enthusiasm for the cause.

Supporters said that given the opportunity, dog owners would show how clean and responsible they are.

"If there's a place where people can go and run their dogs legally in a safe environment, it would cut down on problems," said Bruce Megowan, a Palos Verdes Estates real estate broker who is advocating for a dog beach on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

"If there is no legal alternative, people are going to find their own place to let their dogs free," he said.

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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