by Paul Donahue


The off-leash German Shepherd raced wildly up and down the tideline, relentlessly flushing the frightened Sanderlings and Heermann’s Gulls that were trying to forage there. After the seemingly deranged dog had scattered the shorebirds and gulls several times each, clearing the beach of both species, it actually waded out into the water in a futile attempt to get to the Surf Scoters that were feeding a short ways offshore. I was praying for a Great White Shark attack, but it never came. This off-leash dog incident, which I witnessed a few days ago, was all too typical of an afternoon on Pacifica State Beach, aka Linda Mar Beach.

Theoretically, the City of Pacifica has a leash law, but does it really? If you have a leash law but never enforce it, isn’t that the same thing as not having a leash law? It’s a difference without a distinction.

Pacifica State Beach is, for all intents and purposes, an off-leash dog park. Living right across Highway 1 from the beach, I am out there four or five afternoons a week, where I monitor the beach’s wintering population of Snowy Plovers. While I am on the beach I pay special attention to off-leash dogs because these free-ranging dogs pose a serious threat to the long-term health of the plovers (see “Shorebirds Harassed by Off-Leash Dogs”, Pacifica Tribune, page B3, week of Dec 30, 2015-Jan 5, 2016). On my daily trips to the beach I used to count just the Snowy Plovers, but beginning last winter I started counting the dogs on the beach as well, and I record whether the dogs are on-leash or off-leash. The problem isn't limited to an occasional off-leash dog on the beach. There is virtually always an off-leash dog present, and usually more than one.

Since mid-November 2015, my dog counts on the beach have produced a ratio of almost 2 to1 of off-leash to on-leash dogs. On only two days since mid-November did I not record off-leash dogs, and those were days with horrible weather when I was nearly the only human on the beach. On most afternoons, off-leash dogs are numerous. To give an example of just how bad it can be on some days, on the afternoon of Friday, January 15, during only the 45 minute or so period I was on the beach, I recorded a total of 18 dogs. Four of those were on-leash, while 14 were off-leash.

Dog walkers entering the beach from the main parking lot have to pass two 3 foot x 3 foot signs alerting them to Pacifica's leash law. For those dog walkers entering from the entrance by Crespi Avenue, they have to pass THREE 3 foot x 3 foot signs alerting them that their dogs must be leashed. Twice I have seen dog walkers who arrived at the beach with their dog on-leash, and then stood literally in front of one of these large signs as they removed the leash from their pet before going out onto the beach. In fairness, these dog-walkers are passing ONLY three signs alerting them to the leash law, and only two of those big signs are colorful. This is America, after all, where things have to be flashy to get the attention of people. Maybe more and bigger signs would help, like the kind they have at used car lots, with big balloons, and rows of flashing lights, and American flags, and some of those big clown figures that keep inflating and deflating. Or maybe the city could hire somebody in a gorilla suit to jump around, wave a sign, and pass out fliers with coupons for free doggie pooper-scoopers.

A sign on Pacifica State Beach alerting dog-walkers to the leash law.

Actually, the signs, if read carefully, are a bit confusing. The brown and white “Beach Guidelines” signs state, “Dogs Permitted on Leashes Only” and cite Pacifica Municipal Code 4-10.109. However, if one goes to the website that lists Pacifica’s municipal codes, they will find that PMC 4-10.109 is for “Appeal procedure following denial of permit or imposition of permit conditions” and has NOTHING to do with either dogs or leashes. Clearly the sign is wrong or outdated.

The larger, more colorful signs get it right, at least after the application of some red tape to modify the PMC number. PMC 6-1.206 - “No owner or possessor of any animal shall cause or permit it to… be upon any public street, sidewalk, park, school ground, public property, or upon any unenclosed premises in the City unless the animal is… under the control of the owner by being saddled, harnessed, haltered, or leashed by a substantial chain, lead rope, or leash, which chain, lead rope, or leash shall be continuously held by some competent person capable of controlling such animal.” In short, dogs must be leashed.

Further, per PMC 4-10.118 - “It is unlawful for any person…to perform, engage in or allow the occurrence of any of the following acts in any park,…on any beach or beach parking area, or in any recreation facility:…molesting, harming,..chasing or throwing missiles, items or devices at any animal, reptile or bird.” In short, allowing one’s dog to chase birds is prohibited.

The Pacifica police are the ones responsible for enforcing the leash law on Pacifica State Beach, but they just don’t do it, ever. In answer to numerous queries on this issue, the police have said that they will respond to calls about off-leash dogs on the beach. In practice, however, given their response time, this is simply not a solution. The average dog walker is only on the beach for about half an hour. So, if a call to the police about someone’s off-leash dog is placed 10 minutes into that person’s walk, and it takes the police 15-20 minutes to respond and another five minutes for the police to walk down the beach, the chances of them catching that particular dog walker are VERY small.

Going back to January 15th when I saw 14 off-leash dogs in 45 minutes, do the police really want me calling them for each of those 14 dogs? And how about for the 14 off-leash dogs that were probably there in the following 45 minute period? Twenty-eight calls in an hour and a half? Really? How absurd is that? Would the police show up once? Maybe, maybe not. Would they show up 28 times? What do you think?

How do you think this system would work with controlling speeding? Instead of setting up speed traps or patrolling the roadways, the police could just sit around waiting for people to call in reports of speeding vehicles. Once they received a report, then they could turn on their sirens and flashing lights and rush out to try to catch the speedster. Needless to say, it’s a stupid idea, and would work about as well as enforcement of the leash law does now.

An alternative enforcement system, which likely would have great effect, would be periodic but random checks of the beach by the police, and during the times when beach use by dog walkers is heaviest- early morning and late afternoon. The police don’t even have to walk down the beach. They could sit in the parking lot with binoculars, spot the owners with off-leash dogs, and ticket them as they exit the beach. Easy!

When the California Coastal Commission granted the City of Pacifica a Coastal Development Permit (CDP) allowing fees to be collected for parking at the beach, the permit specified that the fees would fund two rangers and 1/3 police officer whose hours would be devoted to Pacifica State Beach. The CDP also specified that Pacifica would enforce all beach related laws. Those laws include the include the leash law and the prohibition against harassing wildlife, as cited above.

Unfortunately, but predictably, governments lie and deceive, and the City of Pacifica, as many expected they would, is now violating the CDP as well as the terms of the California State Parks lease agreement under which the City of Pacifica manages Pacifica State Beach. The rangers that were hired are used all over town, not on Pacifica Sate Beach as the permit requires, and the beach is frequently left without a ranger presence. Moreover, the City of Pacifica’s definition of a “ranger” is very different from my own, and from that of most people. Custodial duties generally are not considered to be in the purview of a “ranger”, but they are according to the City of Pacifica. While rangers sometimes request that dogs be placed on leash, to my knowledge only two citations have ever been issued by them. My understanding is that this is because the Department of Public Works does not want them writing citations.

The City of Pacifica has also violated the CDP in regard to the 1/3 police officer whose hours would be devoted to Pacifica State Beach. As I said above, I live right across Highway 1 from the beach, and from our house I have a clear view of the beach parking lots. There is not a police car there even 1/10 of the time, never mind 1/3 of the time.

The police don't enforce the leash law, the beach rangers aren’t allowed to enforce the leash law, so who’s left? As I asked near the beginning of this article, does Pacifica really have a leash law?

Pacifica, California

03 February 2016