SAN DIEGO (AP) — A California appeals court has upheld a San Diego city ordinance that closes a picturesque children's beach for nearly half the year so that seals may give birth, nurse and wean their pups.
In a decision filed Thursday, the 4th District Court of Appeal reversed a lower court ruling that set aside the ordinance governing Children's Pool Beach in La Jolla, an affluent seaside community in San Diego.
Thursday's ruling will keep the beach closed between Dec. 15 and May 15 every year. Violators face misdemeanor penalties of up to $1,000 in fines or six months in jail.
The Children's Pool is an artificial cove that was used as a swimming hole for youngsters until seals began moving in during the 1990s — spurring a years-long feud between supporters of the animals and those who want beach access.
In 2014, the City Council approved closing the beach for part of the year after other efforts to protect the seals during their breeding season were unsuccessful. The California Coastal Commission issued a permit allowing that action.
Visitors to the area often walk up to the seals, pose for selfies with them and mimic their barking noises. When they're disturbed, seals can abandon their pups, give birth prematurely or miscarry, or become frightened and accidentally stampede babies. They've also nipped at humans.
The group Friends of the Children's Pool sued San Diego and the coastal commission, arguing that the Marine Mammal Protection Act gives the federal government jurisdiction over marine mammals, not local governments. The group won a trial court ruling in the matter.
The appeals court rejected the group's argument and the lower court's ruling, saying nothing in the protection act pre-empts a state's ability to regulate access to its own property.
"(The ordinance) is not directed to conservation or taking of seals," according to the ruling. "Rather, it is a land-use regulation, which falls within a traditional state police power."
Coastal commission Chair Dayna Bochco said in a statement that the ruling shows the commission "made the right decision to protect the seals and public safety at Children's Pool."
"This agency will continue to safeguard our precious marine resources as we have for the last 40 years," Bochco said.
Friends of the Children's Pool says on its website that the group doesn't want to force seals to be removed from the beach, "only to force the city to find a better way to manage shared use within the law."
"The seals had prospered for over 20 years sharing habitat with people. If the City still insists shared use is impractical, it can revert to restoration of Children's Pool as originally entrusted, not buried under 10 feet of sand," the group says.
Or, the group says, San Diego "must repatriate the seals to the wild, for their safety, per federal recommendations and procedures."
"San Diego had no right to create a pen for them on state trusted land to exploit them for a tourist attraction," the group says.