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Thursday September 18th 2014

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Dog’s Day at the Beach?

SRIA Considers the Dog-Question at Nov. 14 Public Hearing
By Jeremy Morrison

An out of town visitor recently approached Santa Rosa Island Authority Executive Director Buck Lee at a gas station to ask if he knew if dogs were allowed on Pensacola Beach. The answer was no.

“He said, ‘I’m from Tennessee and my dog’s never seen the ocean,’” Lee recalled. “I said, ‘That’s too bad for your dog.’”

Lee’s answer to that question could soon change. There is currently an effort underway to get portions of the beach opened up to dogs. The SRIA will hold a second public hearing on the matter Nov. 14.

In October, during the island authority’s first public hearing on the issue, Karen Sindel laid out her plan for allowing dogs on the beach. She spoke before a packed house, some in favor and some opposed.

“It does work in other communities in the state of Florida, and other communities in the United States,” Sindel told the SRIA board.

The plan the dog-beach proponent has put up for discussion involves allowing dogs at Park East and Park West on Pensacola Beach. The pets would be allowed on the beach from sunrise until 10 a.m., and would need to be leashed during turtle and bird nesting seasons.

“I know it’s a brand new concept for this community,” Sindel said recently.

Since that first public hearing, word of the dog-beach proposal has spread. Sindel has started the PensacolaDogBeach Facebook page and says she is getting a lot of positive feedback from the community.

“It’s been amazing,” she said. “I’ve gotten a lot of phone calls, which is interesting, because I didn’t publish my phone number.”

Sindel has also continued discussing the issue with area officials. She has spoken with scientists at the University of West Florida and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection about water quality concerns, as well as local health officials.

“We’re trying to respond to whatever questions are being presented,” she said, explaining that she would be presenting information to the SRIA about testing water for any impact from the presence of dogs.

A number of concerns were brought up during the SRIA’s first public hearing. Some people said dogs could pose a threat to children on the beach—“you always read in the paper about some poor child that’s been attacked”—or would be obnoxious, but most of the questions were geared toward the environmental and health effects dog waste would have.

“I’ll bring some science,” SRIA board member Thomas Campanella said in October. “I’m going to bring some interesting facts for dog owners about what comes out of dog feces.”

Sava Varazo, the new Emerald Coastkeeper, who formerly worked with the DEP, also had questions about the impact of dog waste when Sindel approached him.

“I said that sounds well planned out,” he recalled. “Now, tell me what you’re going to do with the feces and the waste.”

The Coastkeeper said he was impressed with the research Sindel had done on water quality issues. He said the sampling she is proposing—to be done by student volunteers from UWF—would reveal any possible issues and noted that other animals already relieve themselves on the beach.

“Who’s counting the bird poo?” Varazo asked. “Nobody says anything about that, nobody’s saying anything about the birds. Nobody’s saying anything about the wildlife.”

Sindel likes to point out that a number of other communities in Florida allow dogs on their beaches without problems. In the panhandle, both Bay and Walton counties allow for dogs on the beach. More than 20 counties statewide allow them.

When Sindel approached officials at the Escambia County Health Department about the issue, they reached out to other counties where dogs are allowed on the beaches. They wanted to know if those areas were experiencing negative impacts.

“They have not had any significant problems with water or beach contamination,” said Dr. John Lanza, director of the Escambia County Health Department.

Local officials are recommending certain measures—such as water sampling—be taken in the event dogs are allowed at Pensacola Beach. The health department has provided a list of recommendations, which also include requiring dog owners to have proper permits and up-to-date shots, to the SRIA.

SRIA officials have also expressed other concerns. How would the presence of dogs jive with Pensacola Beach’s eco-tourism mission? What are the costs involved, if any? Should they require dog owners to purchase a beach-specific permit? Or fine them if they don’t pick up after their pet.

“I don’t know,” said board member Elwyn Guernsey, “this is all like a let’s-talk-it-over-and-see-if-we-can-come-up-with-something-we’re-comfortable-with.”

At the second public hearing, the SRIA will decide if it will recommend allowing dogs on the beach to the Escambia County Commission. Any changes to the ordinance that bans dogs would ultimately happen at the county level. The county commission is not bound by the SRIA’s recommendation.

The second public hearing will be held Nov. 14 at 5 p.m. at the SRIA’s 1 Via de Luna meeting hall.

If county officials eventually decide to allow dogs on Pensacola Beach, Lee will have to update his answer when visitors inquire about bringing their pet. The SRIA director went ahead and let the man from Tennessee know that his dog may one day be able to play on the beach.

“I told him maybe check back in six months or so,” Lee laughed.