There’s no doubt about it. Dog owners love their dogs.
For 12 years we had a yellow lab named “Caleb.” He was always good natured. He never snapped at anybody. The biggest risk he posed was that he might lick someone to death. He was never ill-tempered, or snarly, or angry. He loved everybody without exception. He even loved those dogs that snapped at him. But he would eat anything in sight, and he wasn’t shy. If he ever got out of our yard, he’d make a beeline for the nearest dish of dog or cat food at a neighbor’s house – any neighbor’s house – and he didn’t care whether he ate dog food, cat food, or any other kind of food. He recently passed away, and so our lives are now just a bit more quiet.
Because dogs are a part of so many people’s lives, it’s no surprise that discussions of dogs show up in California case law.
Lighthouse Field Beach is a California State Beach that is located in the City of Santa Cruz. It is administered by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, but that Department agreed to have the City of Santa Cruz administer and manage the use of the Beach.
The use of the Beach is governed by a general use Plan. The Plan is required to enhance “the general public use and enjoyment of, and recreational and educational experience at (the beach, and the Plan should provide) for the satisfactory management of park resources.” The Plan that governed the use of the Beach was adopted in 1984. That 1984 Plan expressly provided that “Pets should be restricted to leashes.”
Several years ago, the City of Santa Cruz decided to update its Plan for the use of the Beach. The use of the Beach is subject to the California Environmental Quality Act (also known as “CEQA”) CEQA is a legislative enactment that ensures that “the long-term protection of the environment . . . shall be the guiding criterion in public decisions.” Under CEQA, the public agency that establishes a plan for use of a public property must evaluate whether or not the plan will result in a negative impact on the environment. If the public agency determines that there will be no negative effect, then the public agency can adopt a “Negative Declaration” stating that there will be no effect on the environment. If there may be an effect on the environment, then the public agency must prepare an Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”) that describes and addresses the impact.
Even though the 1984 Plan provided that pets should be on leash, the City of Santa Cruz began permitting off-leash dogs use of the Beach during specified hours starting in 1993. An internal memo from the City’s Parks and Recreation Department indicated that the Department hoped that relaxation of the leash laws would “lead to educate[d] dog owners which would in turn lead to cooperation with law enforcement and the potential for further relaxation of the laws.” However, the memo further noted that the Department’s hopes had not been “realized” and the memo recognized that there was a considerable and increasing problem with doggie poop throughout the area and on the Beach, and that dogs were frequently being seen “off-leash during on-leash hours” and that the “signage and pooper-scooper bag stations” had been “severely vandalized.”
In 1993, the City of Santa Cruz began allowing dogs to be on the beach without leashes (even though the Plan required that they be kept on leashes). The Santa Cruz Department of Parks and Recreation had hoped that relaxing the leash laws would result in better “education” of dog-owners, and could lead to further relaxation of leash laws. However, the City’s hopes weren’t realized because dogs were pooping on the beaches, and owners were taking dogs off-leash during hours when the dogs were required to be on-leash. Nevertheless, the City of Santa Cruz decided to update the 1984 Plan by formally providing that dogs could be “off-leash” during certain times of the day.
The City of Santa Cruz was required to assess whether or not its updated Plan would have any significant impact on the environment. The City held a community workshop to identify issues and receive public input. The City proposed that the Plan be revised so that (1) dog use would be restricted in sensitive areas (2) off-leash hours would be extended to last from sunrise through sunset in certain areas other than the beach, and (3) off-leash dog use hours would be extended on the Beach from late fall through spring.”
The City published a notice of its intent to issue a “Negative Declaration.” This meant that the City would have found that the new Plan allowing dogs to be off-leash would not have significantly affected the environment.
Many public comments were received regarding these proposed changes. The comments included the following adverse remarks regarding dogs. “[T]he Field at present resembles an urban wasteland, a neglected backyard. Its primary present use and future if the draft report is accepted is *1185 as a dog‑running area.” “[B]oth the field and the Its Beach have somehow become the exclusive domain of dogs…. [A]nyone who wants to stroll on Lighthouse Field and/or enjoy Its Beach had better be prepared to deal with piles of dog poop, scary unleashed and uncontrolled dogs, and their self‑righteous owners.” “Irresponsible dog owners have turned Its Beach into a dog toilet and dogs (have the) run of the beach even during the hours when dogs are not permitted…. I have been ‘run over’ and accosted by dogs on numerous occasions…. It is no longer pleasant to go to Its Beach even during the hours reserved for people without dogs because dogs are always there.” “[T]he clear policy is to allow dogs off leash at the beginning and end of each day: and a defacto [ sic ] policy made by the City of allowing off‑leash dogs in the park 24 x 7 by reason of non‑enforcement of the existing law….” “It is obvious and well‑documented that the biggest single cause of sensitive habitat degradation in LFSB is the relatively recent introduction of huge numbers of dogs that are allowed to run free.” “I paid a premium to live at my favorite park and beach (Its) but now I don’t even use them because they are so dangerous and unpleasant due to uncontrolled dogs everywhere.” Other dog behaviors that are particularly unsuited to beaches where humans congregate: [¶] Constant barking …. [¶] Whining, yowling, crying and other forms of dog complaint. [¶] Fighting; chasing; digging (with flying sand in all directions); begging for food; stealing food that is left unattended; running over people’s towels and blankets; shaking off water next to people other than owner, chasing … animals, wild or domesticated; … violating personal space of humans … and on and on.”
Eventually, the Santa Cruz City Council passed a resolution adopting a “Negative Declaration”, which meant that the City Council found that having off-leash dogs would not significantly affect the environment. The text of the new Plan adopted by the City Council noted that “dog use was ‘the most controversial and publicly discussed issue during this planning process.’”
A non-profit advocacy organization named “Lighthouse Field Beach Rescue” filed a lawsuit asking the Court to find that the City hadn’t properly evaluated the effects that the new Plan would have on the environment. The trial court denied the petition, which meant that the City would have been able to proceed with its new Plan allowing for off-leash dogs on the beach. The advocacy organization appealed, and after a lengthy legal opinion, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court, which meant that the City would need to set aside the new Plan it had adopted, and would need to make sure that any new Plan fully complied with CEQA (which is the California Environmental Quality Act.) The case is reported as Lighthouse Field Beach Rescue v. City of Santa Cruz (2005) 131 Cal. App. 4th 1170. The reported decision doesn’t report what steps the City of Santa Cruz eventually had to take – but the reported decision does indicate that the new Plan had to fully comply with CEQA.
Issues regarding CEQA, public planning, use of public resources, and laws concerning animals can be complex. Results can vary significantly, depending on the facts of any given situation. Persons considering these issues should consult competent legal counsel.