As visitors flock to our beaches during this busy season, some bring along their best four-legged friend.
However, what they may not know is that South Walton beaches are only open to resident dogs whose owners purchase an annual permit. Others who take their dogs onto the beach could be ticketed.
Though some residents say that’s unlikely.
Pauline Sutcliffe has lived in South Walton for 29 years and says the beach ordinance has not been enforced throughout the years. The Seacrest resident encounters dogs loose on the beach regularly, and says it as an ongoing problem.
"When I see a dog running for me that I don't know, I get fearful,” Sutcliffe said. “It is getting worse every year as we have more people visiting here."
South Walton Sheriff's Office spokesperson Wendy Ammons said from Feb. 1, 2012 to Feb. 13, 2013 the Beach Patrol units issued 808 verbal warnings for dogs on the beach. During this same time period the deputies issued four civil citations for dogs on the beach. Those in violation of this ordinance are subject to a $100 fine.
"I don’t have an average number for complaints," she said. "Many of these may not come in as complaints but as observed violations by deputies."
Permits for residents' dogs are $30 a year. And the only exception to the resident permit rule is if the dog on the beach belongs to a beach-front property owner who is with the dog on their own property, said County Commissioner Cindy Meadows.
The measure can be perplexing to residents and visitors as dogs are forbidden on the beach outright in neighboring Destin and Panama City. A recent proposal to allow South Walton visitors to purchase beach permits for their dogs also added to the confusion. But that measure was scuttled after residents objected at a number of meetings.
In response to a heightened level of complaints about dogs on the beach, the Tourist Development Council hired two Code Enforcement Officers last year whose job is exclusively to patrol the beach.
Sutcliffe acknowledges that locals are the worst offenders.
"They don't obey the leash law. They seem to have an attitude of entitlement. I see officers patrolling, but nothing changes,” she said. “We have the extra money to enforce it now since the TDC is responsible for expenditures. We should pay the piper.”
It's an important issue. The beach is why we moved and visited here. But it's not a priority with a lot of people."
Sutcliffe is a dog owner, but doesn’t bring her dog to beach because she worries about other people’s animals. To her, the issue boils down to enforcement.
"I am an animal lover but I don't think dogs belong on the beach. I would like to see consistent enforcement. I have never seen or known of anyone who has been ticketed, and I am on our beach a lot," she said. “To be successful you have to patrol year around. I walk three times a week year round and I see dogs off leash running loose and dog waste on the beach.
Sheila Wachsman, a retired attorney of 18 years who has lived here for nine years, has also experienced the fear of unleashed dogs charging her leashed dog.
"I've seen dogs on the beach without an owner. I've seen people holding leashes without it attached to the collar. I've seen some on leashes,” she said.
“I decided that it wasn't worth it to take her down there since no one is going to enforce the law, so I didn't bother to buy a permit this year,” continued Wachsman, who lives at Blue Mountain Beach. “I don't want my dog hurt. It's a free for all. What's the point of laws if you're not going to enforce them?”
Law enforcement seems to dispute that assertion. Jeff McVeigh, a code enforcement agent who is regularly on beach patrol, recently told The Sun he and his partner deal with an average of 10 to 12 incidents per day of dogs on the beach. He said at this time he is only issuing a warning to the owners and informing them of Walton County ordinances, but he said that will change soon when new official tickets that have been ordered come in.
But Wachsman doesn’t feel reassured.
"People do whatever they want but if the law is not enforced someone will be bit. I know someone who allows his pit bull to walk on the beach without a leash. It's a disaster waiting to happen," she said.
From the Walton County Code of Ordinances, Chapter 5, Article II, Sec. 5-34 - Dogs on the beach:
"Citation" shall mean a written notice, issued to a person by an officer, that the officer has probable cause to believe that person has committed a civil infraction in violation of this article, and that the county court will hear the charge. The citation must contain:
The date, time and place of issuance.
The name, address, date of birth, and other forms of identification, such as a Florida driver's license number, of the person receiving the citation, to the extent such information is provided to the officer.
The date, time and place the civil infraction was committed.
The facts constituting probable cause.
The ordinance violated.
The name and authority of the officer.
The procedure for the person to follow in order to pay the civil penalty, to contest the citation, or to appear in court for aggravated violations.
The applicable civil penalty if the person elects to contest the citation.
The applicable civil penalty if the person elects not to contest the citation.
A conspicuous statement that if the person fails to pay the civil penalty within the time allowed, or fails to appear in court to contest the citation, the person shall be deemed to have waived his right to contest the citation and that, in such case, judgment may be entered against the person for an amount up to the maximum civil penalty.
A conspicuous statement that if the person is required to appear in court for an aggravated violation of this article, he or she does not have the option of paying a fine in lieu of appearing in court.
The names and addresses of witnesses to the infraction known to the officer at the time of issuance.
"Public beach" shall be defined as:
The land from the mean high tide line to the Gulf of Mexico;
The sandy area next to the mean high tide on which the public has had customary use.
Sec. 5-34. - Dogs on the beach.
All dogs shall be prohibited from public beaches of Walton County except as provided below:
Dogs assisting those who are sight and hearing impaired or service animals; or
Dogs owned by Walton County real property owners or permanent residents who have obtained a permit and who maintain the dog on a leash. Proof of real property ownership or Walton County residency is required (such as deed, driver's license, tax receipt, utility bill, lease agreement. or voter's registration showing address). For property titled in the name of a business, a person must show proof that they own a controlling interest in the property to be considered eligible for a permit (copy of state or other document showing percentage of ownership or list of officers). The permit will allow leashed dogs on the beach between the hours of 4 p.m. and 8 a.m. of the following day during Daylight Savings Time and between the hours of 3 p.m. and 9 a.m. of the following day during non-Daylight Savings Time. Any Walton County real property owner or permanent resident desiring a permit shall be required to pay a $40 fee, of which $5 will be utilized to help fund the Habitat Conservation Plan. Replacement cost for a lost tag shall be $10. All permits issued shall be for a period of one year and will expire on Aug. 1 of each year with a grace period until Aug. 15 of each year. Proof of rabies vaccination must be presented prior to obtaining a permit.
Owners of dogs shall be responsible for pick up of their dogs' waste.
Permits will be issued by the board's designee upon receipt of a completed application.
Sec. 5-35. - Identification.
All animals must wear a collar or have a tattoo or implanted microchip which identifies the owner of said animal, the owner's address, and phone number. To ensure proper notice, all tattoos shall be registered with Walton County Animal Control. An officer may pick up any animal that is not properly identified and place said animal in the animal control shelter. It is a violation of this article for an owner to allow the owner's animal to be off the owner's property without being so properly identified."