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Council committee agrees 4-0 on plan to keep La Jolla seals protected year-round

Staff and wire reports

A rope barrier separating people from harbor seals at La Jolla’s Children’s Pool would be kept up year-round and access to the beach would be prohibited during pupping season, under a proposal unanimously endorsed Monday by a San Diego City Council committee.

The Natural Resources and Culture Committee (NRCC) also agreed to seek a ban on dogs at the beach year-round, as well as to study First District Councilwoman Sherri Lightner’s proposal to hire a privately funded, full-time ranger or lifeguard to enforce beach regulations.

The committee also directed city staff to study the legality of another Lightner proposal to discontinue allowing seal advocates to sell commercial merchandise at the pool.

The committee’s proposal now goes to the full City Council for consideration. If the council approves the rules, the necessary permits would have to be obtained from the California Coastal Commission.

Councilman Carl DeMaio, who had voted with Sherri Lightner against earlier proposals last month, said before the vote that while some people might still not be satisfied, he felt that the proposals were a step in the right direction. He called the seals “a real treasure” but noted that clear guidelines were needed.

The goal, he added, was to make viewing the seals “an enjoyable experience... Right now it is not.”

He cited a report from Assistant Police Chief Boyd Long presented at the meeting indicating police had spent more than 106 hours in the past year responding to reported battery, assault or other complaints at the Children’s pool and the end of January this year.

Councilwoman Marti Emerald who made the motion for the year-round limits which was seconded by committee chair Donna Frye, said it was important to “show solidarity” on rules that would restore order at the beach.

Lightner got agreement on an amendment to include “the removal of tables (by animal activists) to see if that would create a free speech problem, and to see dogs removed from the beach and more signage.”

She said also she wanted the city attorney’s opinion on the legal ramifications of those proposed actions.

DeMaio said he’d prefer to see any commercial concessions at the pool be taken over by the city and done without preference to special-interest groups.

Lightner’s proposal to seek private funding for a park ranger or lifeguard to patrol the Children’s Pool will be reconsidered by the committee in the next 60 days.

The same committee had deadlocked 2-2 in March on proposals for managing the beach where a colony of harbor seals has taken up residence. The seals’ presence has been at the center of a nearly decade-long debate between preserving public beach access and protecting marine mammals.

Advocates for separating seals from people at the April 5 committee meeting said shared use of the beach doesn’t work. They showed videos depicting seals being flushed by human activity onshore, a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act forbidding seals from being “harassed.”

They were countered by others who said the public must have some level of beach access.

John Leek of the San Diego Council of Divers proposed roping off the bulk of the beach, but keeping a small area along the coastal bluffs open so people can get to the ocean.

The fate of the seals at the Children’s Pool fell back into the hands of the City Council last year when the state Legislature voted to approve a bill authored by State Sen. Christine Kehoe amending a 1931 trust that designated the beach as a bathing area for children to also allow for a marine mammal habitat.

Emerald characterized the council committee’s action today as “baby steps” toward securing long-term management of Children’s Pool.

Joe LaCava, president of La Jolla Community Planning Association, the advisory group making land-use recommendations to the city for La Jolla, agreed.

“Everybody’s in favor of a management plan,” he noted. “There are a lot of stakeholders here and we need to achieve their goals without continued litigation, which wastes everyone’s time and achieves nothing.”

Staff Writer Dave Schwab and Joe Britton of City News Service contributed to this report.