Dog owners hoping to frolic on the beach with man's best friend off the leash should think again if headed to Mitchelville Beach Park on Hilton Head Island.
Hilton Head is the only place in Beaufort County -- and one of few places in the state -- where pets can be leash-free on the beach for part of the year as long as they are under "positive voice control."
But that freedom doesn't extend to Mitchelville Beach Park.
According to town code, the park is not considered a "beach," but rather a public area, requiring dogs be leashed at all times.
The town's definition of beach encompasses shoreline stretching south from Fish Haul Creek at Port Royal Sound to Braddock Cove at Calibogue Sound. It excludes shoreline north of the creek, including Mitchelville Beach Park and Fish Haul Creek Park.
The parks were built in 2005 and 2006, decades after the definition of beach was written into town code, town staff attorney Brian Hulbert said.
"I still have not learned exactly why these two parks were not added to our definition of beach within the town," Hulbert said.
A town sign at the entrance to Mitchelville Beach adds to the confusion. The sign, like all the others the town places at its beach parks, says pets are allowed off-leash during certain times of the year.
"If that's up there, it is misleading," Hulbert said of the sign, which doesn't let violators off the hook. "It doesn't excuse someone from violating town ordinance. Dogs must still be on a leash."
Violators face a warning or citation. Penalties include up to 30 days in jail and a fine of more than $1,000.
Island resident Mary Smetek pointed out the discrepancy in a letter to Mayor Drew Laughlin after an incident Aug. 4. Smetek said she was walking along Mitchelville Beach Park with her young grandchildren when two dogs "bounded up the beach" and threatened to attack her 3-year-old granddaughter. No one was injured, she said.
She wants the Mitchelville Beach sign replaced to say dogs without a leash are prohibited, and she wants the town to go further by requiring that dogs be leashed on all the beaches. She also takes issue with the "positive voice control" restriction, which she doesn't believe is a viable alternative to a leash.
"As a dog owner for more than 20 years, the only dogs I am aware of that respond consistently to positive voice commands are law-enforcement and 'helper' dogs,'" she said. "The members of the Town Council should act in a proactive manner to prevent any animal confrontations, no matter how well-meaning or innocent the owner may be."
The town still awaits a nonbinding legal opinion from the S.C. Attorney General's Office about whether state law prevents unleashed dogs from roaming the 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.
After a heated meeting attended by about 140 dog-lovers, council chose to seek the attorney general's opinion.
Laughlin, an attorney, maintains the town's ordinance is valid and hasn't heard any complaints from residents about dogs on the beach since the controversy bubbled in 2009.
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 beaches.
Laughlin, however, said there is "no obvious reason why Mitchelville Beach Park should be treated any differently" than other town beach parks, though he stopped short of saying he'll urge council to change its designation.