Rules for dogs on beach should be settled locally

info@islandpacket.comAugust 29, 2012 

Three years of waiting and all we get is a no-opinion "opinion" from the state Attorney General's Office on whether Hilton Head Island's rules for animals on the beach are legal under state law.

That's disappointing; the town and the public would have benefited from clear legal guidance. But it's not all that surprising, given the conflicting language in state law.

"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," spokesman Bryan Stirling said. "Therefore, we can't offer an opinion. The law is not clear. ... It's a very tough question, involving multiple state statutes."

The town's conclusion is that its ordinance is legal. We agree. It should be within the town's purview to control what can and cannot happen in public spaces on the island. Home rule should make that possible.

And it's not as if dogs are allowed to roam at will. Animals aren't permitted on the beach at all between 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day. They must be on a leash between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. another three months of the year. And at all other times, they must be on a leash or under positive voice control.

Revisions in 1994 changed the hours dogs could be on the beach. The rules have always recognized that a dog running loose on a crowded beach is a problem.

It's a good compromise. Dogs aren't allowed on the beach during the busiest hours of the busiest time of year. At other times, the onus is on owners to keep their dogs under control.

Those who want dogs on a leash on the beach at all times point to the section of state law that prohibits dogs from being allowed to run at large off an owner's property. But they don't address why that doesn't prohibit dogs off leash at the town's dog park, which was built just for that purpose.

Common sense says the town ought to be able to do that, so why not set rules for the beach, too?

The town should clear up its intentions for the Mitchelville Beach Park. A woman upset about dogs loose on the beach there discovered a discrepancy in town law. Is that area to be treated like other sections of the beach? Taking down a sign that conflicts with town code is a good first step.

Dog owners who aren't keeping their dogs under control should be punished -- and should stop bringing their dogs to the beach if they aren't going to do their jobs as owners. They know whether their dogs should be off the leash. They know when they have the dog under control.

As a community, we can make this work. And that's where it should be settled -- at the community level.

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