Pawleys Island reluctantly yields to state law banning dogs on beaches; Hilton Head presses on

May 31, 2009 

  • Hilton Head Island is the only place in Beaufort County where pets can be leash-free on the beach for part of the year, and one of the few places in the state where local laws permit it.

    Hilton Head allows unleashed dogs on its beaches during the off-season. It prohibits pets between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. from the Friday before Memorial Day to the Tuesday after Labor Day.

    Elsewhere in the county, Fripp, Harbor and Hunting islands all require dogs to be leashed.

As Hilton Head Island awaits a legal opinion about whether local governments can allow unleashed dogs on the beach, another summer resort town in South Carolina has abandoned its pet-friendly ways.

Like Hilton Head, Pawleys Island -- a town of 200 year-round residents 25 miles south of Myrtle Beach -- had allowed dogs to roam the beaches leash-free during certain times of the year, as long as the animals were under voice control.

But unlike Hilton Head, Pawleys Island changed its law May 11 after being alerted to the controversy caused by a long-time state law that seems to make moot any local decisions on the matter.

"Our attorney said the state law takes precedence over our law," said Mayor Bill Otis. "Now that we're aware of the fact that there's a state law, we don't think it's appropriate for us to do something that's not in accordance with that state law."

Public opinion on the matter is split, Otis said.

Some have written letters to the local newspaper, The Coastal Observer, while others have called Town Council members.

"I think most people understand that it's out of our hands," Otis said. "It's a state law. As I responded to one of the letters to the editor, if you have a problem with it, you need to take it up with the (state) legislative delegation."

The issue arose on Hilton Head earlier this year when a small group of residents alerted Mayor Tom Peeples to the state law requiring pets to be on leashes anytime they are off their owners' property. The broad -- and some say confusing -- law seems not only to ban unleashed dogs from beaches, but also from public dog parks.

The town's attorney studied the matter and recommended that local rules be changed to comply with state law. After a heated meeting attended by about 140 dog-lovers March 9, Town Council sought a second opinion, this time from the S.C. Attorney General's Office.

Mark Plowden, spokesman for the office, said attorneys continue to study the issue and wasn't sure when the office's non-binding legal opinion would be offered.

If the office comes back with the opinion that local governments aren't allowed to set their own rules, Hilton Head plans to lobby the state legislature to change the law.

That's something Pawleys Island is interested in, too.

"We're perfectly happy to have dogs on the beach," Otis said. "I'd be happy to talk with the mayor or town manager when they receive their response from the Attorney General. I would certainly like to talk with them and see what the commonality of our interests might be."

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