The point was to protect nesting birds from roaming dogs, but the Clearwater City Council's decision to create a leash law for north Clearwater Beach also will protect human visitors to the beach.
Local environmentalists and birders recently asked the City Council to consider banning dogs and fireworks from the north end of Clearwater Beach. They said the 30 species of shorebirds nesting in the sand and dunes there are easily disturbed by roaming dogs and loud noises. Frightened birds fly off the nest, leaving their young vulnerable to predators, or even abandon their nests entirely.
Regular beach visitors might have been surprised to learn that dogs were allowed on Clearwater Beach, much less off leash. Dogs are banned on the main tourist sections of the beach, near hotels, restaurants and Beach Walk, and indeed on most beaches in Pinellas. But on the north end of Clearwater Beach, which is residential and not so heavily used by tourists, dogs are allowed and can romp off their leashes as long as they are under the "voice control" of their handlers.
City Council members realized that mere voice control was insufficient protection, for birds and for humans. And roaming dogs that are not leashed make some people uneasy or even reluctant to use the beach.
However, residents of Clearwater Beach attending a recent City Council meeting mostly argued against any significant change in the law.
It was a tough issue for City Council members, who appreciate both dogs and birds. Surprisingly, the fact that dogs defecate on a public beach where people swim and sunbathe did not become a major issue, though it is a valid health concern.
However, confronted by scientific evidence that birds may abandon their nests when they see dogs, and aware that strange dogs make some people anxious, Council members Carlen Petersen and John Doran advocated the same rule for north beach as south beach: a ban on dogs. Doran, a longtime beach resident, said he takes his pets to Fort De Soto Park or city dog parks to play, and others could do the same.
But Council members George Cretekos, who lives on Sand Key, and Paul Gibson, a Clearwater Beach resident, opposed the ban Doran and Petersen wanted instituted.
The council briefly toyed with creating a ban on just the public portion of the beach and allowing beachfront property owners to have their unleashed dogs on the area above the high-water mark, but debate over the location of that invisible line and uncertainty about how police would enforce it mercifully squelched the idea.
In the end, council members sought middle ground. They directed the city staff to write an ordinance that will allow dogs on north Clearwater Beach but require that they be on a leash at all times while on the beach.
With whole cities now covered by leash laws, that's the least the council should do. There will be a public hearing before that ordinance goes to a vote, likely within a month. The council also will vote on a fireworks ban that would apply during bird nesting season.
A leash law isn't really what the bird lovers had in mind, since just the sight of dogs, whether leashed or not, is sufficient to scare birds off their nests. But for dog lovers who feared losing the right to take their dogs on the beach, it was seen as a valid compromise. A leash law minimizes the possibility that someone will be attacked by a roaming dog or frightened by an overly friendly or excited animal. And it probably is better than nothing when it comes to protection of birds' nests.
Assuming the council formally approves the proposed leash law, city officials should ask Audubon biologists to report back to them on the success of the new law at the conclusion of this year's nesting season.
If the leash law is ignored by beachgoers, or if it doesn't sufficiently prevent birds from abandoning their nests, the council should consider banning dogs. In crowded Pinellas, there are few places left where shorebirds can nest in peace. The beautiful variety of shorebirds is a unique and treasured component of life in Florida, and their nesting grounds need protection.