BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County's canine residents will not be denied their romp on the beach, but officials want better compliance with the rules at Bark Island.
County commissioners decided Tuesday to allow the popular Bark Island activity to continue two Saturday mornings a month during the off-season at Alfred A. McKethan Park at Pine Island.
Complaints from beachgoers and nearby residents after a number of incidents at the last Bark Island event prompted the commission to put the item up for discussion Tuesday.
No one came forward to speak to the commission about health concerns related to animal waste left behind, but a resident had provided county officials with information from the Florida Department of Health about the potential for contamination of beaches where dogs are allowed.
While the Health Department did not take a particular stand on the issue, it did provide a list of guidelines to reduce the health risks. Those included requiring dog owners to show proof of current vaccinations and requiring owners to scoop and dispose of their animals' waste.
Hernando recreation officials have been taking those precautions and have an additional list of rules for those who participate in Bark Island, said Harry Johnson, the county's recreation supervisor.
In addition to proof of current vaccinations, the county's rules require dogs to have a current license; they also ban aggressive dogs, prohibit female dogs in heat and require owners to pick up after their dogs and fill in whatever holes the dogs might dig.
Bark Island, which began in 2007, allows people and their dogs to use the park on Pine Island from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. on two Saturdays each month, from September through March. Each car or walk-up patron pays $7.
After the second Bark Island event in September, county officials were inundated with complaints about people who didn't pick up after their dogs, animals defecating in the water, sand soaked with dog urine and a dog urinating near the park's concession stand.
Commissioners heard from those both for and against continuing the program, but only those in favor spoke Tuesday.
Barbara Miles, who has been a Hernando County resident since 2009, urged the continuation of the program. She said she takes her dogs to the event, and "they love going to the park.''
Joanne Schoch, executive director of the Humane Society of the Nature Coast, said she would hate to see a good program disappear just because a few people have been irresponsible.
"To stop Bark Island would be a serious mistake,'' Schoch said. Tax-paying pet lovers of Hernando, she said, "need something, and we don't have much.''
So far this season, there have been an average of 64 cars per event. The highest number of cars, when the program first began, was 104. Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes wondered whether at some point the number of dogs permitted should be limited. Johnson said he has considered that issue.
He explained that he has someone from his department working at each event to make sure the rules are followed. He also noted that Bark Island pays for itself and, in fact, makes the county a little money.
Commissioner Dave Russell spoke up for the activity, noting he has taken his own dogs there and found that most owners were compliant and cleaned up after their pets.
And some owners reminded others who didn't comply with the rules that they should, Russell said.
"It's a pretty fussy bunch, quite honestly,'' he said.
Russell noted that one manatee swimming up the canal or the myriad of shorebirds that frequent the area result in far more excrement than a few dogs playing in the water.
"I think it's a great activity and one we should continue,'' he said.
Commissioners urged Johnson and his staff to be diligent about making sure the rules are followed. Johnson said he would, and noted that new signs will go up asking that the dogs and their owners stay farther away from the concession stand on the beach.
He agreed to report back to commissioners on how things go.
Dukes said it was a shame that the issue had arisen because he thinks most people do the right thing.
"There could be 100 good people and one slob," he said, "and that's what everyone remembers.'"
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.