Attorney General's Office says law not clear on Hilton Head leash rule

tbarton@islandpacket.comAugust 22, 2012 

In this file photo, Maggie the dog waits for Hilton Head Islander Tom Whyte to throw a stick while playing a game of fetch at South Beach.


The S.C. Attorney General's Office says it is unsure if the Town of Hilton Head Island can allow unleashed dogs on its beaches.

So there will be no answer to the town's request -- registered more than three years ago for -- for the attorney general's legal opinion, according to an office spokesman.

"Several attorneys have looked at the issue and, following lengthy research, cannot say with specificity as to what a court would likely conclude or find," Bryan Stirling said. "Therefore, we can't offer an opinion. The law is not clear."

Public bodies can request an attorney general's opinion about legal matters when there is uncertainty about a legal issue. The opinions are not legally binding, but they often are followed.

The Town of Hilton Head asked whether its ordinance is in conflict with a state law some interpret to prohibit unleashed dogs on any public beach. The issue arose after a woman was bitten in January 2009. A town attorney recommended local rules be changed to mirror state law, which requires dogs be restrained when in public, including on beaches.

After a heated meeting attended by about 140 dog lovers, council chose to seek the attorney general's opinion but never heard back.

On Wednesday, Stirling told The Island Packet an opinion is not forthcoming.

"Our ordinance is presumed to be lawful, and we will continue to enforce (it)," town staff attorney Brian Hulbert said in reaction.

Mayor Drew Laughlin, an attorney, maintains the town's ordinance is valid and says he hasn't heard any complaints from residents about dogs on the beach since the 2009 incident.

The town's leash law was enacted in 1985, before a 2000 amendment to state law made it unlawful for counties and municipalities to allow dogs to run at-large on public property, including on beaches.

Laughlin also argues that the town's ordinance was established under a separate section of state law unaffected by changes made in 2000. Municipalities are allowed to set its own rules for general welfare and convenience as long as they are consistent with the state's constitution and general laws, he said.

Stirling, however, says the matter is not so simple.

"It's a very tough question, involving multiple state statutes ...," he said.

Hilton Head allows unleashed dogs on the beach during certain times of the day from Oct. 1 to March 31, as long as they're under "positive voice control."

However, dogs must always be leashed at Mitchelville Beach Park, which is not considered a "beach" under town code. A town sign at the entrance to Mitchelville Beach -- like all others the town places at its beach parks -- said pets are allowed off-leash during certain times of the year. The sign was removed Tuesday after a resident complained about the discrepancy.

Different signs may be installed later at Mitchelville Beach Park and other non-beach parks outlining town regulations, said Scott Liggett, director of public projects and facilities.

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