CLEARWATER — After getting barraged with comments from dog lovers and bird lovers, the Clearwater City Council struck a compromise Thursday night, voting to enact a leash law on North Clearwater Beach in an effort to protect nesting shorebirds from dogs.
Up until now, people have been allowed to take their dogs onto North Clearwater Beach if the dogs are either on a leash or "under voice command." It's one of the few spots along the Pinellas County beaches where canines are permitted. Dogs aren't allowed onto touristy South Clearwater Beach at all.
After a lengthy debate, the council voted unanimously to have city attorneys draw up an ordinance requiring dogs to be leashed when they're out on the sand on North Clearwater Beach, a residential area that runs from Somerset Street up to the northern tip of the island. Council members will likely vote to approve the new law in two to four weeks.
They'll also vote on a rule prohibiting fireworks displays on North Clearwater Beach during shorebird nesting season, which runs from February to August. Groups sometimes get permits for fireworks displays there for weddings, neighborhood celebrations or other events.
This is all about shorebirds.
These issues came up when environmentalists asked Clearwater to forbid dogs and fireworks on the north beach to protect about 30 species of birds that nest there, including snowy plovers, black skimmers, least terns and American oystercatchers.
Biologists with Audubon of Florida told city officials that it's vital that the birds stay in their nests to protect their eggs and chicks, and that the birds are more disturbed by dogs than by humans. Audubon also said leashed dogs have about the same impact as unleashed dogs.
This sparked a flurry of e-mails and phone calls to the city from Clearwater residents who have been passionately arguing both sides of the issue.
A dozen beach residents spoke before the council Thursday night. Although a few wanted stricter controls on dogs, most were against a dog ban.
"I think Clearwater Beach is very unique, and one of the unique things about it is having the dogs," said beach resident Pat Page. "I take my two little dogs out there practically every day."
Clearwater Beach activist Anne Garris argued for a dog ban, or at least a leash law: "Do the birds have another place to nest? And do the dogs have another place to walk? If the birds have no other place to nest, then perhaps we should leave them alone and let them nest. …
"The glamour and glory of Clearwater Beach would certainly be enormously reduced for most people without the birds."
Although Audubon biologists presented the city with reams of scientific research saying dogs are harmful to shorebirds, several beach residents said they believed humans are a bigger threat to nesting areas. They described finding vagrants and partiers sleeping in the dunes.
"There are other things nesting in the dunes besides birds," said Jordan Behar, who said his family got a dog for protection.
The five City Council members, most of whom are dog owners, ended up splitting the difference with a new leash law.
John Doran and Carlen Petersen supported an outright ban. Doran noted that Clearwater includes about 28 square miles, and the ban would affect perhaps an acre or two. Dog owners can take their pets to the beach at Honeymoon Island, Fort De Soto Park or the Courtney Campbell Parkway.
"Ninety-nine percent of the city or more is available for you to walk your dog," he said, "and there's only so much space that we have left for the nesting birds."
George Cretekos and Paul Gibson opposed a ban. Gibson displayed a photograph of his dog watching a Clearwater City Council meeting on television.
Mayor Frank Hibbard, who recently lost two boxer dogs to cancer, thought a leash law was a reasonable compromise. "There is not going to be a perfect solution," the mayor said.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.