Filner ramps up enforcement against seal harassment and unpermitted beach signs

The City Attorney’s office has opined that posting signs such as these on the beach is a violation of city municipal code. File

By Pat Sherman

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner has issued a memorandum strengthening and clarifying existing city policy on the enforcement of illegal harassment or disturbance of harbor seals at Children’s Pool beach.

Following issuance of the memo, several people contacted the La Jolla Light to complain about the policy.

Filner’s May 14 memo to Police Chief William Lansdowne and Park and Recreation Director Stacey LoMedico states that the city will continue to enforce municipal code 63.0102(b)(10), “which makes it unlawful to disturb any animal on a city beach.”

The code does not require that the harassment be intentional or result in harm to the animal, only that the animal’s “tranquility or composure” be disturbed (such as when human activity causes seals on the beach to flush into the water).

“The mayor stating the position is new, but the fact that no intent is necessary is not new — that’s been in the law the whole time,” San Diego Police Northern Division Captain Brian Ahearn said.

What is new, said Ken Hunrichs, president of the pro-beach access group, Friends of the Children’s Pool, is the mayor’s “misapplication of a municipal code ordinance” to enforce the disturbance of seals. Hunrichs said it is a law enforcement function “strictly reserved to the federal government unless specifically delegated to a state agency.” He added, “The Mayor is stepping beyond his authority when he asks city personnel to enforce a local ordinance about mistreating animals when dealing with seals.”

Ahearn said police maintain discretion on whether to issue a citation to those who disturb seals.

“We have incorporated the mayor’s position into our protocol — there’s no doubt about it — but I think the mayor’s office and the mayor understand that these are case-by-case examples. … The officers have to conduct an on-scene investigation and make a determination as to whether there should be enforcement.”

The memo, which says police will respond to all requests for assistance at Children’s Pool, further clarifies the position of San Diego Police’s Northern Division.

Some of those requests are  coming from people hired by the Western Alliance for Nature (WAN) conservancy to monitor the new Seal Cam, which provides round-the-clock, streaming footage of Children’s Pool beach. The camera operators include many members of the pro-seal group, La Jolla Friends of the Seals.

Ahearn said he could not say whether the volume of seal harassment complaints has increased, though he admitted there is now an “additional layer” of people calling in with complaints.

“Not only do we have people calling at the scene from time to time, but we also have these folks that are monitoring cameras remotely that are seeing what they believe to be violations,” he said.

A now year-round guideline rope spanning Children’s Pool beach meant to keep people 50 feet back from harbor seals has drawn the ire of divers and people who wish to exercise their legal right to access the shoreline.

Though it is legal to be on either side of the guideline rope, beach access advocates say the mayor’s policy discourages all diving and beach use when it states: “If someone is engaged in ‘normal beach activity’ — including activities in the water — and that activity results in a disturbance (i.e. flushing of the seals), then the disturbance is unlawful.”

Pacific Beach resident Cheryl Aspenleiter said the group she was with was detained by officers and asked for identification, after a tourist took a flash photograph of a seal lying on the beach from 15 feet away. She said the seal did not flush into the water as a result.

“The tourists had been warned by others in my party not to stray too close to the seals; our group did nothing wrong,” Aspenleiter said, alleging that an officer responding to the incident climbed over the seawall railing and shone a light on the seals that caused 15-20 of them to flush into the water.

Ahearn confirmed that police responded to two reports of seal harassment on June 21 — one reported by a Seal Cam operator and one reported by a citizen at Children’s Pool. One involved five people, and other about 50 people.

“One was reported as people touching the seals; one was reported as seals (being) hesitant to come out of the water because of the people on the beach,” Ahearn said. “In both circumstances the officers did not witness any violations.”

Early June 15, Seal Cam operators did record footage of two men intentionally chasing seals into the water. Ahearn said such “videotaped evidence” from Seal Cam operators has been “very helpful.”

An increase in police responding to calls at Children’s Pool wouldn’t create an undo burden on Northern Division officers, he said.

“(People) may say, ‘Well, why are we policing seals?’ We’re responding to a member of the public’s call for police service and we have an obligation to respond,” Ahearn said. “If we’re asked to go stop a barking dog, people who are dog lovers are going to say that’s a drain on our resources.”

Illegal signs at Children’s Pool
Another new piece of the mayor’s protocol for Children’s Pool regards unpermitted signage.

“We’ve gotten opinions from the city attorney’s office that, in fact, it’s illegal (for the public) to post signs or attention seeking devices at the Children’s Pool — on the sand and up top,” Ahearn said.

Earlier this year the mayor attended a court hearing for seal activist Bryan Pease, who was accused of stealing a beach access proponent’s sign, which was posted on the sand. In court, Filner stated that the sign was illegal to begin with. Pease was nevertheless fined and given community service for the offence.

“Before the interpretation was very loose but it seems like the city attorney’s office is very comfortable moving forward with those kinds of citations regarding the illegal signs,” Ahearn said.

Hunrichs argues that a flag emblazoned with the word “open” on it, which Friends of the Children’s Pool uses to alert the public that the entire beach is open, is exempt from permit requirements per current city code

Related posts:

  1. The Seal Deal: Part 3 of La Jolla Light series explores the pinniped world at Children’s Pool
  2. Mayor shares details of recently installed ‘seal cam’ at La Jolla Children’s Pool
  3. Mayor extends length of pupping season rope at La Jolla Children’s Pool
  4. Coastal Commission to rule on year-round seal rope July 11
  5. Appeal of year-round rope barrier at Children’s Pool is Dec. 9

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Posted by Pat Sherman on Jul 2, 2013. Filed under La Jolla, News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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