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Council stalls on action to regulate horses on the beach

DEL MAR — Rather than begin a process to regulate horses and other large animals on beaches and in parks, a move they were asked to consider at the April 6 meeting, council members opted to let the San Dieguito Lagoon Committee and San Dieguito River Valley Joint Powers Authority seek feedback.

A Del Mar ordinance, adopted in 1970, prohibits horses in public spaces except for a small area at the north end of the city informally known as Dog Beach, where canines are permitted.

Research indicates horses were allowed on all Del Mar beaches before then.

The new rules were enacted to address safety concerns and the fact that where horses were being ridden, there was less beach area available for public use.

Since then there is far greater use of the beaches by people, including children, and dogs, Planning Manager Adam Birnbaum said.

“Staff is concerned that there is an inherent incompatibility with the use of the beach by adults, children and dogs when mixing in horses and other large animals,” he added. “Since 1970 there’s also been far more awareness and scrutiny on the issue of water quality protection.

“These factors raise the question of whether it’s still appropriate to allow horses in the North Beach area or whether there should be some parameters and regulatory provisions included in the municipal code,” Birnbaum said.

“As a general practice, equestrian riders do not pick up after their horses and the fecal matter has a direct impact on ocean water quality,” according to the staff report.

Staff recommended horses and other large animals, such as camels and elephants, only be allowed on beaches or in parks with an operations permit, which would put conditions on an activity, ensure safety and meet environmental objectives.

Birnbaum said another option would be to only allow large animals during certain times of the day or year.

Six people addressed council and asked them not to change the rules. Some, including a San Diego veterinarian, disputed the health claims.

“I know far too much about horse poop,” Crystal Van Lom said, noting that the animals process food differently and that bacteria would not survive in saltwater.

“Mother Nature’s not offended by horses,” she added.

Other speakers said horses are docile; their owners are responsible when it comes to picking up after them and they are synonymous with Del Mar, “where the turf meets the surf.”

They also said the proposed permit would be an “extreme” solution, creating added expense and bureaucracy to a recreational activity.

There was also discussion about the goal of the Coast-to-Crest Trail to allow beach access to everyone.

However, council members noted the trail currently prohibits horses west of Interstate 5.

It was also pointed out that to get to the beach, many riders cross the railroad tracks, which is not legal.

“The intent was not to ban horses on the beach, but simply to regulate them for safety for other beach users and to prevent interaction between some ill-behaved dogs and horses,” Councilman Don Mosier said. “There is a water quality problem, and of course the water quality restrictions have increased substantially.”

Mosier said it’s true that “E. coli wouldn’t like a saltwater environment,” but he is more concerned about the river and lagoons.

“I think the idea that horses have unrestricted access to the beach isn’t appropriate. We have rules for dogs,” he said. “I think we have a public safety obligation to regulate when horses are there.”

He also said horses are gentle animals, but not all the time. They can be spooked and there have been fatal accidents between horses and humans.

“They are large animals,” Mosier said. “Occasionally sad things happen. In terms of public safety, we need to make sure that those interactions between horses and humans are good. I have real problems with people riding their horses on pedestrian-only trails. … Allowing unregulated access to the beach is not a smart thing to do and it’s not good public safety policy. Times have changed. We’ve got a lot more people and dogs on the beach. I think we have to take some steps to regulate horses.”

Councilman Dwight Worden suggested taking no action.

He said he grew up around horses and described them as “kind of like dogs.”

“Most are gentle, but some will get spooked,” he said. “The manure issue I’ll leave to the scientists other than to say if you’re down there you don’t want to see a big steaming meadow muffin even if it isn’t a health hazard. In contrast to your dog, where your dog does it and you pull the bag out of your pocket and pick it up, you need a can and a rake to deal with a horse.”

He also noted the city seal appears to include an image of horses on the beach. He said the lagoon committee should vet the issue and council members should revisit it “if and when it becomes a problem.”

Councilman Terry Sinnott said a long-term solution should be considered, although no a ban, especially since beach use is ever increasing.

“I hate to get into regulation of this kind of use but we will have to do something,” he said, noting it’s not a problem yet but it is “creeping up.”

Mayor Al Corti said he’s never seen a horse on the beach in the 22 years that he’s lived in the city.

“I didn’t see it as a big issue,” he said. “It should go through the lagoon committee.”

Councilwoman Sherryl Parks, noting that it is difficult to get a horse from point “A to B either legally or environmentally in a sound way,” said it is almost “romantic to have horses on the beach but there are consequences that we need to address.”

City Manager Scott Huth invited equestrian groups to provide solutions.