PINE ISLAND — Complaints about irresponsible pet owners on the beach at Pine Island have put the future of the popular Bark Island event in jeopardy.
County commissioners on Tuesday will discuss some of the concerns of beachgoers and nearby residents, who worry that allowing dogs at Alfred A. McKethan Park is presenting a health risk.
Bark Island, now in its sixth year, is a program developed by the county's Parks and Recreation Department. Pet owners and their dogs can use the beach from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. two Saturdays a month, from September through March. Dogs are not permitted at the park, on the Gulf of Mexico, at any other time.
After the last session, on Sept. 29, when the county logged in 70 dogs on the beach, commissioners began to get phone calls and emails reporting problems.
Reports included children playing in sand laced with dog urine; owners allowing dogs to defecate in the water without cleaning up the mess, and some owners back-talking those who asked the owners to clean up, and dogs urinating on trash cans near where diners were consuming food from the concession stand.
"Please cancel all dogs in our beautiful park as the owners do not pick up after them,'' Pine Island Drive resident Dave Swank wrote to commissioners. "They don't keep them on leashes, and it has become a mess.''
Brooksville resident Carol Rogers urged commissioners to consider the issue seriously.
"Pine Island is the only beach in Hernando County, and it is not very large,'' Rogers wrote, noting that public health officials frown on allowing dogs on public beaches. "We should do our best to keep our only public beach clean and attractive so that families can feel comfortable and safe using it.''
County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said he heard enough complaints about the situation that he talked to County Administrator Len Sossamon about putting the item on Tuesday's commission agenda.
"I personally have never been a huge supporter of it. It's too small an area,'' Dukes said.
Even large beaches, like Daytona Beach and Cocoa Beach, have rules prohibiting dogs, he said.
Joanne Schoch, executive director of the Humane Society of the Nature Coast, said she could understand people having a problem if dog owners are not cleaning up after their pets. But she also said she would hate to see the activity be canceled because Hernando County has so few recreation opportunities for dogs to share with their owners.
Schoch said she enjoys Pine Island in the mornings, and she once found a dirty diaper in the sand. "So what do we do, ban young children from the beach?'' she asked, noting she did the responsible thing and disposed of the diaper properly.
She said she wondered if county supervision of Bark Island was sufficient to make sure people comply with the rules.
Owners must bring proof of current vaccinations and clean up after their pets. While the dogs do not have to wear leashes, if a problem develops, an owner might be asked to leave with his or her pet, said Harry Johnson of the Parks and Recreation Department. Participants pay $7 per car or per walk-up patron.
Johnson said Bark Island is monitored by a Parks and Recreation employee. He said he will bring commissioners more information Tuesday about the program and participation.
Schoch said she would hate to see rule-abiding dog owners lose out because of those who do not. "As much as we encourage it,'' she said, "it's hard to regulate morality and responsibility.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.