Tybee Island considers bringing dog days to the winter season – Savannah Morning News

Tybee Island beachgoers are urging the city to allow dogs on the beach, an issue that has consistently divided residents for years.
The city’s local ordinance bars people from bringing their furry companions onto its pristine shores for fear of endangering precious wildlife and the more obvious reason, poop. 
However, this time around, residents and some council members are asking the city to trust its citizens (and other dog owners who visit Tybee) for just one day a week and for four months out of the year. 
During Thursday’s council meeting, city officials discussed a proposal brought forth by council member Brian West that would allow people to walk their canine friends on Tybee’s sandy shores on Wednesdays between Nov. 1 to March 1. A designated area confined to the island’s south end from 14th Street to Inlet Avenue would also be established. Further, dogs wouldn’t be allowed on the pier. 
Dubbed “Wagging Winter Wednesdays”, the program aims to strike a compromise between groups on either side of the issue. 
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People have routinely implored the city to go easier on their zero-tolerance policy on dogs for years, according to West. The proposal stresses that dog owners must bring their own bags to pick up after their pets and that pets must be leashed at all times.
“We don’t want the pets to go in the water either, so there’s no exploding diarrhea. We want to make sure this is a safe event for all people,” said West. 
Tybee Island’s enforcement on the issue isn’t unique, said City Manager Shawn Gillen. Beaches up and down the coastline implement different rules to protect wildlife and prevent the inevitable issue of dog feces.
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On Tybee, the Loggerhead sea turtle and certain migratory birds such as the Piping Plover, which visits Tybee during the winter, must be safeguarded. 
“Birds are not able to tell the difference between a pet or a threat and often perceive dogs to be predators such as coyotes and foxes,” said Allie Hayser, a shorebird technician who works with the Georgia Bight Shorebird Conservation Initiative and is a site manager for Tybee Island. 
Thus, the presence of dogs could impact these birds’ nesting, feeding and resting periods and their overall ability to survive. Hayser named several more at-risk species of birds that have been found to nest on Tybee’s beach. The Black Skimmers and several tern species use the beach throughout the year. The Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstones migrate here during the winter months. Many more species of birds are found throughout different seasons on Tybee, said Hayser.
At one point, Tybee did allow dogs. But that was at least two decades ago, according to a resident and city officials. 
Residents like Kate Burns asked the city to trust them once again. Burns referenced a survey of 450 residents conducted three years ago, in which 52% of respondents supported dogs on the beach. 
“I think one day a week is something we can live with,” said Burns, who noted she has a service dog she’d like to walk on the beach. 
However, another resident, Elizabeth Reed, suggested that allowing dogs even for one day a week could confuse residents and visitors and only lead to more violations. She pointed out that code enforcement already cites people for bringing their pets to the beach, despite signage indicating no dogs are allowed.
About 198 citations – a $290 fine – for dogs on the beach were issued since the beginning of the year through Nov. 10, according to code enforcement.
Sgt. Walter Hattrich, who oversees the TIPD’s code enforcement division, brought up potential issues with implementing Wagging Winter Wednesdays. While restricting dogs to a certain section of the coast is well-intentioned, it could create problems with enforcement, said Hattrich.
“On the sand, it’ll be very difficult for a police officer to know where’s that line,” explained Hattrich, citing a similar experience when Tybee first ran a trial of the no-smoking ban. “But if that’s what you choose for us to do, then we’ll do our best to do that.”
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Other points were brought up during the last agenda discussion of the night. 
In the fourth hour of the meeting, council member Barry Brown posed a question: “Who’s going to be responsible for these little foo-foo dogs that everybody has when a man from Toombs County comes out with his pitbull that eats your dog up while you’re standing there?”
“It’ll be a lawsuit,” said council member Spec Hosti.
“With the city or between the two dogs?” asked Brown. 
Hosti later clarified that it’ll most likely be a civil suit between the two dog owners if the situation were to escalate to legal action. 
Council members were split by the end of the discussion, though a majority seemed to support at least a trial run of the program. Some residents and council members suggested making the designated area smaller. Mayor Shirley Sessions brought up that the costs of implementing the enforcement will have to be outlined as well.
“We’re making a lot of guesses of what’s going to happen and all the problems we’re going to have and we don’t really know until we try it,” said West, “This is a group of well-intentioned people who want to do it the right way and they want to be able to have this privilege.”
Council will most likely revisit the program at a future council meeting. Permanent changes to the ordinance would have to be approved through an ordinance amendment.
Nancy Guan is the general assignment reporter for Savannah Morning News. You can reach her at NGuan@gannett.com.