Increased restriction of dogs on East Hampton Village beaches appears likely following a lively discussion at a village board work session last Thursday.
Dogs are now prohibited from public beaches between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. from the second Sunday in May through Sept. 30. Those with a dog on the beach outside of those times are required to “maintain control” over their dogs and to clean up after them. Last Thursday, Larry Cantwell, the village administrator, distributed to the board nearby towns’ and villages’ policies regarding dogs on the beach, and board members were surprised at how minor East Hampton’s restrictions are compared to those of other municipalities, including Quogue, Shelter Island, Sag Harbor, Southampton, and East Hampton Town.
Although public comments are not usually allowed at work sessions, Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. allowed two village residents with diametrically opposed opinions to speak on the matter. Each of them did so at length.
“I would hate to see the easy decision, ban dogs on the beach,” said Jennifer Berkeley, who was also speaking on behalf of Sara Davison, executive director of the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons. “That would be easy, then we don’t ever have to have this discussion. But I’m not sure I’d want to live in this wonderful community if I couldn’t take my dog to the beach, and I think others feel the same.”
She asked for a dialog between the board and those holding opposing viewpoints, and said she hopes that all sides will collaborate to improve signage and education of dog owners.
The issue has been raised repeatedly, and with it have come the same questions about educating owners about cleaning up after their dogs and preventing them from disturbing beachgoers, Ms. Berkeley said. But, she said, more people favor protecting this privilege than oppose it. The village has improved its signs, provided receptacles with the plastic bags for waste disposal, and distributed brochures at beaches, she said, while also conceding that “there seems to be a lot of noncompliance over the winter months.”
Matthew Norklun prefaced his remarks by saying that he does not hate dogs, rather that he is an advocate for the beaches. He believes the majority of people do not want dogs on the beach. “Dog owners aren’t going to bring their dogs to the beach, have it pee, and then go to the beach later and sit down where the dog was,” he said.
He agreed with Ms. Berkeley that signage, handouts, bags, and even pleading with people were part of an ongoing effort. “And we still have a problem, and it’s increasing,” he said. “And ARF is part of the problem.” He referred to the group’s annual Stroll to the Sea dog walk each fall, after the 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. prohibition is lifted, as the “pee in the sea” parade. “They get hundreds of dogs to walk down Main Street, pee on Main Street, and crap on Main Beach. It starts off the winter pooping season,” he complained.
Mr. Norklun recited a litany that has become familiar to the board. “A single gram, about the size of a dime, of dog feces contains 23 million coliform bacteria. Dog feces harbors dangerous bacteria and viruses such as heartworms, whipworms, roundworms, tapeworms, parvo, and a bunch of things I can’t pronounce.”
Even when dog owners do clean up after their animals, he said, the health hazard remains. “A dog defecates on the beach, you go and pick it up. Are you going to go to the beach and sit in that spot where you saw the dog poop, put your blanket, your towel down? Are you going to let your kids play there?” he asked. Furthermore, he said, “Dogs urinate on everything,” including people, beach blankets, chairs, and unattended shoes.
Mr. Norklun said dog owners have conditioned their pets to use the beach as a toilet. He has written to the mayor and attempted to make appointments with board members, he said, and many residents encourage him to continue writing letters to The Star. He also said that most like-minded people are reluctant to sign a petition advocating banning dogs from beaches for fear of being labeled anti-dog or the potential fallout of irritating local officials.
“If somebody has enough sensitivity and concern that they’d like to bring something of issue to the board of trustees, they’ve got to sign their name to it,” Mayor Rickenbach said. “Maybe I’m remiss,” he added. “I don’t know of any contact that you made with any other board member. I don’t remember ever getting a written correspondence from you.”
Police issued summonses and warnings all summer, the village police chief, Gerard Larsen, said. “However, it is very difficult to enforce, because when our presence is there, obviously people are complying.” Further, he said, maintaining control over one’s dog, as specified in the code, “is left to a lot of different interpretations.”
“How do you define ‘control?’” the mayor asked.
“I’d like to see the dog leashed,” replied the chief, who owns a dog himself. “At least then, if the dog was leashed the person would have definite control of the dog, so that when the dog did use the beach as a bathroom, they would be right there.”
The mayor agreed that “control” should be more specifically defined, and voiced support for mandating that dogs be leashed while on village beaches. He said that families often enjoy sunset dinners and other gatherings on beaches during the summer months, and that people have personally expressed their concerns about dogs to him. He then suggested extending the prohibition beyond 6 p.m.
The lack of restrictions relative to neighboring jurisdictions may compound the problem by encouraging residents of more restrictive areas to take their dogs to village beaches, Richard Lawler, a board member, said. “We don’t allow dogs in our parks,” Mr. Lawler said. “Our beaches, as far as I’m concerned, are our parks, a huge asset that people in the community can enjoy. I hate to say it, but I think the time has come that we should restrict all dog access to the beaches, at least between Memorial Day and Labor Day.”
“I think there are other ways to explore this,” Ms. Berkeley protested, suggesting that one or two of the village’s five beaches allow dogs, or that public education efforts be increased. “To walk a dog on the beach with a leash . . . you might as well just walk in a parking lot.”
Bruce Siska, another board member, suggested prohibiting dogs at Main Beach, if not the other village beaches, citing its status as being rated among the top beaches in the country. “I’d hate to see my 3-year-old grandchild sit where one of these dogs has been there before,” he said. “It’s a health issue, also.”
Enacting a prohibition at one beach would exacerbate the problem at the others, said Barbara Borsack. Elbert Edwards felt that a leash law would reduce the number of dogs on beaches, because owners “want the dog to run free,” he said, a belief supported by Ms. Berkeley’s previous remark.
The mayor expressed support for Mr. Siska’s idea of a prohibition at Main Beach, but also agreed with Ms. Borsack that such a ban would push the problem onto other beaches. “A lot of this boils down to Pavlovian conditioning and how each and every one of us conduct ourselves in a public corridor,” he said. “It portrays itself here with the inability of some people to maintain the appropriate discipline with their four-legged creatures who we love — we’re all animal lovers up here.”
The board will develop some recommendations, he said, “and if they reach a point where we have to have a public hearing — that very well may be the case — we’ll invite formal participation from the public.”