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Sarasota Thursday, Mar. 7, 2019 2 months ago

Siesta's stance on beach dogs doesn't sit, stay well with everyone

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Health concerns and bird protection drive regulations, but some owners say they're responsible and find a way to visit with their four-legged pals.
by: Samantha Chaney Staff Writer

Where dog owners go, their four-legged friends will often follow, just not to many beaches in the Sarasota area. 

And that makes a small segment of Siesta Key all the more rare, even if the legality of such visits is a bit hazy.

Terri Telander, who recently relaxed with her 8-year-old Labrador in the soft sand near Siesta Key’s Access 2 at sunset, said Maximus is like part of the family.

Maximus, with soft eyes and a graying muzzle, is a service dog and is allowed to go where many other dogs aren’t.

 Still Siesta Key’s Access 2 is often a prime gathering spot for dogs and owners of all kinds, despite a county ordinance that officially denies their access. 

“To come down here at sunset and to be with their owner, it’s a beautiful and very peaceful thing,” she said.

Not everyone feels that way about the spot on the north end of the island — or anywhere else on Siesta Key’s popular shoreline. And the unincorporated community is not alone. Longboat Key and Lido Beach similarly restrict on pets on the beach.    

“Access is 2 is unique in that it’s largely private,” said Sgt. Paul Cernansky of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office. “But the owners have agreed to extend the ordinance that governs the block of the beach down to their private sand so we can enforce the ordinance there … Years ago, that beach area was actually known as ‘Dog Beach.’ And then, it was decided [by owners] that they didn’t want that to be the case any more.”

Moreover, he says,  the presence of dogs is not isolated to Access 2. If the Sheriff’s Office is made aware of the dogs on the beach, someone will respond. A warning or a civil citation are possible.

“Sometimes it’s an education issue where people don’t know. Sometimes it’s a repeated offense,  or someone ignoring the ordinance,” Cernansky said. “Generally, on the Key … the community policing [officers] kind of handle everything.”

8-year-old yellow lab Gracie enjoys her first visit to Siesta Key Beach.

Residents and officials say dog owners shouldn’t take it personally.

“It’s not about dogs, it’s about the type of environment we live in, and it’s very unique,” Siesta Key

Association President Catherine Luckner said. “Because there’s a soil difference where it’s vulnerable to bacteria. And [owners] can’t know everything their dog does.”

Additionally, Luckner said dogs can scare away endangered bird species on Siesta Key, making it difficult to protect nesting birds and their young.

“The biggest danger to our endangered species of birds is canines,” said Siesta Key resident Jay Connelly. “That’s a fact, that’s not even debatable, and I’m appalled if somebody just let their dog run and chase birds.”

Connelly says the dog situation at Access 2 is under control largely because of a strong sense of community.  So long as the dogs are on leashes, he said, owners should be allowed to enjoy the beach with their furry family members.

“It’s really been a grassroots community effort to enjoy this beautiful beach for all of us. And we have endangered birds down here,” he said. “And, down here, we understand that. So things are contained. So, it’s one of those linchpins where, are we not responsible enough to police our own neighborhood? These are private properties and stuff, and I think we can.”

But others are not so sure.

At a February Siesta Key Condominium Council meeting, for instance, several residents spoke up to voice their concerns to their officials about how dog-owners often ignore the “no dogs allowed” signs posted at each access point.

“Any kind of animal fecal matter on the beach pollutes the water,” Luckner said, relaying their concerns. “We resist the idea that dogs should be allowed, as owners don’t pick up after the dogs.”

Lauren Dougherty enjoys a sunset with her black lab puppy, Kya.

But dog owners themselves disagree and see no need for strong enforcement. Back at Access 2, some dog owners said they are as responsible as possible.

“I just wanted to take her for a walk, so I brought her here,” said Siesta Key resident Lauren Dougherty. At her heel, 6-month-old black Labrador Kya was digging excitedly in the sand. “I think as long as you clean up after them, then it’s no problem.”

As Laura Keller-Gautsch explained her stance on the matter, her friend and part-time Florida resident Jane Battina stood nodding in agreement. And at Battina’s side? Gracie, another 8-year-old yellow Labrador.

“As long as people pick up and properly dispose of anything that needs to be disposed of, I don’t think [dogs would have an adverse effect on the beach],” she said, looking down with a smile at Gracie. 

“This is her first trip to Siesta Key and she’s loving it. I feel like, maybe there should be areas where dogs are accepted on the beach … If there was a way to offer that experience for people who want to have the dog, and people who don’t want to have the dogs, then maybe that would be a good way to meet in the middle.”

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