Despite state and federal efforts to protect endangered birds at the mouth of the Santa Ana River, local authorities have done little to enforce various ordinances prohibiting trespassing and dogs.

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The result? A Wild West dog park in a flood control zone where owners allow their pets to frolic in a sensitive habitat while ignoring verbal warnings and a slew of signs.

“It is literally a dog palooza. It’s wild down there,” said environmental advocate from the Sierra Club, Penny Elia during a phone interview.

Dog owners and their pets trot past and ignore several signs with various ordinances in order to reach the beach. Credit: SAVANNAH SAUER

This small strip of land where dogs play is between Newport Beach and Huntington Beach on what is considered county land. But neither the Orange County Sheriff’s nor the Newport Beach Police department regularly fine violators despite constant pleas from environmentalists for more enforcement. 

The unofficial park, known as “Disneyland for dogs,” sits in a flood control zone that is habitat for the federally endangered California least tern and the threatened western snowy plover. The park’s opponents have battled officials for at least five years to protect the habitat and enforce leash laws. Dog supporters, including Lindsay Lier, a Corona del Mar resident for more than 40 years and owner of a dog business, insists the park keeps the community together, she said in an Apr. 26, 2016 Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting. 

The dog beach attracts anywhere from a handful to dozens of canines on any given day, with owners passing — and ignoring — at least ten bird education signs near parking and beach entrances, as well as signs detailing City of Newport and Orange County ordinances for trespassing and dog restrictions on the beach. 

Costa Mesa resident Renee Alane has been visiting the de facto dog park for more than 20 years, she said in an interview, and has never been confronted by law enforcement. The trespassing signs she passed to get to the area referred to the roped off dunes and area more upriver, not to the beach where she lets her dog roam free, she said adding that officials and dog owners have long had a “gentleman’s agreement” not to enforce dog laws at that beach. 

The leash law controversy surfaced in 2015 when Newport Beach Mayor Diane Dixon said she received complaints from nearby homeowners about unleashed dogs at the Santa Ana River mouth and dog waste. Newport Beach then conducted a survey on whether residents favored enforcement of county leash laws. Majority preferred the law unenforced.

The following year, former Board of Supervisor Michelle Steel, now U.S. Representative for California’s 48th congressional district, took it a step further by proposing to establish the area as an official dog beach and lift restrictions.The ordinance received widespread support from Orange County dog lovers and three Newport Beach City Council Members at the Apr. 2016 meeting. Several residents wore hats that said “Save Dog Beach” during their testimonies at public comment and spoke passionately of its importance to the community. 

The item passed unanimously by the council, but was quickly met by opposition from environmental and state agencies in the months that followed.

The California Department of Parks and Recreation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, The Sierra Club, Orange County Coastkeeper, and Sea and Sage Audubon Society pushed back against Steel’s Negative Declaration to not conduct an environmental report. The California Coastal Commission, which would need to provide a coastal development permit, cited the area as a sensitive habitat for the endangered California least tern and threatened western snowy plover.

“It was a resounding ‘No, you cannot do this Michelle Steel,’” recalled the Sierra Club’s Elia. Though the dog park received initial approval from the board of supervisors, it was never approved through a second vote. Regardless, people still treat the area as a dog beach to this day by bringing dogs to play and swim in the river mouth. 

Environmental organizations have advocated for increased protection of birds with the California Coastal Commission ever since. The commission sent notices of violation and educational letters to commercial dog walkers in that area in 2018.

At the July 2020 Coastal Commission meeting, the County of Orange agreed to additional educational signage in English and Spanish about the endangered birds and their habitat. The County also agreed to continue enforcing “no trespassing” and dog-leash laws in the river mouth, and communicated the Orange County Sheriff’s Department presence has increased in the area and to issue citations as necessary. 

Commissioners also requested an annual activity report by July 2021 of the number of visits by county staff and the number of warnings and citations issued to measure the effectiveness of signs and current enforcement measures. 

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department issued 556 verbal warnings in Sept., 79 verbal warnings in Oct. and 63 verbal warnings in November. The protocol is to not issue monetary fines, said Sergeant Dennis Breckner during a phone interview with The Orange County Sheriff’s Department. When asked about the sharp decline in citations in those months, Breckner said he didn’t know the reason.

The sheriff’s department will respond to calls, but does not regularly patrol check the area due to lack of resources, said Breckner.

Newport Beach Police Department reported 75 warnings and 19 administrative citations for unleashed dogs on the Newport Beach side near the flood channel from the six-month timespan of July 2020 til mid Dec.. It also reported 109 proactive patrol checks, compared with about the same rate of 413 checks in the past two years. 

At low tide, dogs walk across the sand spits in the river mouth where birds may be vulnerable. Credit: SAVANNAH SAUER

Newport Beach officers do not ticket within the jetties and only enforce the laws in their jurisdiction, said Newport Beach Animal Control Supervisor Valerie Schomburg during a phone interview. 

Verbal warnings aren’t enough for the Sierra Club’s Elia, who has served as a voice for the birds for five years. “Warnings don’t work. We want citations,” she said.

But the sheriff’s department disagrees. Rather than fine, officers ask dogs and owners to leave and they comply, said Breckner. Sheriff’s deputies patrol the unincorporated land in the flood channel between the jetties, stopping short of pursuing violators a few steps away within the Newport Beach and Huntington Beach city limits. No system exists for the county and City of Newport Beach to work together on enforcement in this area, said Breckner. 

Environmentalists continue to advocate to better monitor violators and to strengthen enforcement with fines. 

According to Orange County code, unleashed dogs are not allowed on public beaches and neither dogs nor people are allowed to trespass into the river mouth, which is a flood control zone. The City of Newport Beach forbids even leashed dogs on public beaches between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.. In terms of trespassing, people and dogs are not allowed in the flood channel by the county.

Just the presence of dogs in this sensitive habitat can have serious consequences for nearby birds. It’s impossible to confine birds to restricted areas as officials are attempting to do with a fenced roosting area for California least tern on the north side of the river. Birds will fly from protected areas to sand spits in the canal where they are vulnerable to dogs.

A dog named Oliver at the mouth of the Santa Ana River accompanied by owner, Jessica. Credit: SAVANNAH SAUER

Dogs pose one of the biggest threats to California least tern, said Andrew Willis, California Coastal Commission enforcement officer in a letter to county officials in June 2019.

“While it is possible that some types of human activities can sometimes affect these small bird species, large groups of dogs have a much greater impact on them, and cause much more harm,” he said.

The western snowy plover needs to have its habitat undisturbed so it can nest, forage and court without being barked at or chased by dogs, according to a California Research Bureau report on the effect of dogs on California beaches. Along with causing direct harm to birds, dogs can also impact their habitat by digging up the sensitive dune area and contaminating the river water with their waste and flea repellant, said Elia. 

Elia and others are compiling information on human and dog activity in the area to provide evidence for the need of the city and county enforcement to work together. 

People and dogs mainly congregate on the sandy peninsula that juts into unincorporated Orange County territory. Credit: SAVANNAH SAUER

Alternative locations for an official dog beach have been discussed, but have yet to be implemented. 

In July the Coastal Commission will revisit the issue with the County of Orange, which will provide a report on the number of visits by county staff and number of warnings and citations issued. The Coastal Commission will then determine actions necessary. 

“This shouldn’t be a question of birds versus dogs,” said Elia. “There are other beaches that dogs and their owners can enjoy without threatening the lives of endangered species. It’s time we start taking care of our beaches.”

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