By Marimar McNaughton and Miriah Hamrick
One Wrightsville Beach dog owner thinks the town should tweak its ordinance prohibiting dogs from the beach during summer months.
Tom Thompson presented research during the town’s July 1 planning board meeting thumbnailing the policies of 17 regional beaches in southeastern North Carolina and northeastern South Carolina from Emerald Isle, N.C., to Kiawah Island, S.C.
Only one, New Hanover County’s Kure Beach, has a policy as restrictive as the one enforced by Wrightsville Beach restricting all dogs from the beach between March and October, Thompson said.
Thompson is promoting the Folly Beach, S.C., model, allowing leashed dogs on the beach year round except during daylight hours, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., from May through September.
“Candidly I thought if I proposed 24/7 365 days of the year I would get more opposition than if I proposed something in the middle,” Thompson said during a July 6 phone interview. “It seemed to me that it made the most sense from different perspectives to use Folly Beach as a model and hope that it might address other concerns.”
At the local level, Thompson, who has been a Wrightsville Beach property owner since 2002 and a year-round resident since 2012, sees the town’s citizen-initiated nonsmoking ordinance as a template for the relaxation of the dog ordinance. Similar to the informal study conducted by resident Tim Taylor to support nonsmoking, Thompson assembled baseline data for the 17-beach survey that includes dates of enforcement, days on beach, days on leash and days off leash.
“The idea was to push the topic out for public discussion,” Thompson said, “to present data worth considering in that context. If we require dogs be leashed, why should we deny dog owners the right to have dogs on the beach?”
The Wrightsville Beach dog ordinance has been on the books since 1978 when the entirety of the town embraced within the town limits and all land owned or leased by the town outside the corporate limits was designated as a bird sanctuary. Dogs are only permitted on leashes and only on town beaches from Oct. 1 through March 31, although service dogs are allowed on leashes on beaches at all times.
The ordinance does not restrict dogs alone and specifically includes cats, horses and snakes.
Wrightsville Beach Park Ranger Shannon Slocum said disturbance to nesting birds and sea turtles would be one of his biggest concerns if the ordinance were loosened.
“Birds and turtles are usually the major, major obstacles. If a dog gets into a turtle nest, whether it’s marked or not, it’s a $10,000 fine,” Slocum said during a July 5 interview.
Though Thompson has not yet solicited the reactions or support of organizers and volunteers with the Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project he said, “All the other beaches have found a way to accommodate dogs on the beach. Simply in regard to loggerhead turtles it did not seem to be an issue.”
But Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project coordinator Nancy Fahey predicted it would be an issue.
“There’s always potential for dogs to disturb a nest. That’s just their instinct, to be attracted to something potentially edible,” Fahey said during a July 7 phone interview.
Some WBSTP volunteers have noted a high incidence of dog waste on the beach during morning turtle walks. While they are searching for the tracks and ultimately nests, the volunteers pick up and collect trash found within their zone.
“The waste problem can exist anywhere you have human beings and dogs,” Thompson said. “The problem is moved to the Loop and individual property owners. I think it’s important to keep that in mind.”
Thompson proposed a revenue neutral program in which the costs of enforcement and education be offset through the additional assessment of permit access fees and increased fines for noncompliance.
“There’s costs just as there is providing any service to the Wrightsville Beach community,” he said.
Thompson suggested visitors might also pay for the privilege of walking their dogs on the beach too.
Of the 99 dogs and cats registered as of Jan. 1, 2014, Slocum acknowledged many responsible dog owners in Wrightsville Beach but said the irresponsible ones, like those who leave unattended dogs in cars during steamy summer afternoons, would be the problem. He rescues dogs in distress from hot cars and issues animal cruelty citations. While some owners leave dogs in the car because they arrive at the beach and realize dogs are prohibited, he doubted a looser dog ordinance would have a major effect on the number of dogs in cars reported to town officials every summer.
“I wouldn’t think it would put a dent into the calls we get about people leaving dogs in the car. It’s just poor decision-making by a lot of people,” Slocum said. “Some of us treat pets like a part of our family, where a lot of people treat their animals like a piece of property that can be replaced.”
Following the planning board presentation it was implied the future of Thompson’s proposal rests with the board of aldermen, which may choose to appoint an ad hoc committee to study the matter further.
“I support any forward progress,” Thompson said, “If it’s baby steps, so be it, but why would you want to wait? If the policies of Wrightsville Beach are at the extreme, why would you want to follow that model any longer than you had to? It seems to me this is a quality of life issue for dog owners and for the dogs.”
Thompson has at least one advocate, Charlotte Murchison, lifetime resident and dog owner, who serves on the town’s parks and recreation advisory committee and was instrumental in proposing a dog park on town property.
“If we open it up, it’s open to anyone who wants to come to the beach with a dog. That’s what I’m worried about,” Slocum said.
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