Should Cape May be more dog-friendly?

Cape May is a genteel seaside town known for Victorian homes, horse-drawn carriages, and white-linen dining — not raucous fighting. But one thing puts people here more at odds than the town’s annual croquet match: dogs.

The city — a National Historic Landmark considered the crown jewel of the Jersey shore — imposes more restrictions on pet owners than other shore towns. Some contend these rules are necessary for maintaining the island’s carefully curated aesthetic. Others think they make for an inhospitable environment, and the very opposite of what a resort area should be striving for.

Those who support the status quo point to all the ways that dogs are already enfranchised on the island – a 1,500-square-foot dog park on Lafayette Street, several dog-friendly hotels and bed and breakfasts, and nearly 20 restaurants and cafes that allow dogs in their outdoor seating areas. But for critics of the town’s animal policies, these checks in the pro-dog column don’t make up for the fact that dogs are canines non-grata in many public spaces.

On the Cool Cape May Facebook page, with more than 17,000 fans, the topic comes up frequently. On November 22, 2016, the online discussion grew so contentious, page administrators deleted some comments perceived as nasty. Other times, the disagreement plays out face-to-face.

“I was walking my pug Mimi on the Washington Street Mall, and an old woman loudly said to her companion: ‘I guess some people just can’t read,'” said Krystina Kennedy, wedding and social sales manager for Cape May’s Congress Hall hotel. “I made eye contact and she said to me: ‘Dogs that bite don’t belong in crowded places.’ I replied that Mimi is 10 and not interested in biting anyone, and then she mumbled something about disrespect. I have been yelled at many times for walking my dogs on the mall and the boardwalk. But honestly, it doesn’t change anything for me. I know my dogs are good, so I have no issues bringing them around.”

So what’s the verdict? Are Cape May’s policies unfavorable to man’s best friend, or are they the very thing keeping the town from, well, going to the dogs? NewsWorks investigated.

The controversy

Along Cape May’s concrete promenade, which runs parallel to the beach for nearly two miles, dogs are only allowed November through March. And on the city’s main beach, dogs are only allowed the 1.3 miles “from the intersection of the midpoint of Madison Avenue and the Beach to Third Avenue,” according to the city codebook, and only — again — from November through March. In each place, dogs must be leashed at all times. In Cape May Point, dogs are prohibited on the beach from March 15 through October 31.

While nearby Sunset Beach in Lower Township has become a popular spot for some due to it’s lack of dog restrictions, legislators voted 3-2 in 2015 to ban dogs here from 11a.m. to 4 p.m. every day during summer months. The meeting drew 200 people on both sides of the debate, and was standing room only.

Likewise, nearby Higbee Beach in Lower Township is commonly known as a place where dogs can run free all year — and several tourism websites advertise it as such. But the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, which manages the area, says this isn’t exactly true.

“Dogs can be free here between September 1 and April 30, and on leash between April 30 and September 1,” said Larry Hajna, spokesperson for the NJ Department of Environmental Protection. “Limitations have a lot to do with timing restrictions for endangered species, like the Red Knot shorebird, which migrates through the area. And if regulations are in place, people should be obeying them.”

But the safety of endangered species doesn’t explain why leashed dogs aren’t allowed on the three-block pedestrian walk known as the Washington Street Mall, the wildly popular shopping district largely considered the heart of Cape May, and the crux of the doggy debate.

The mall dispute

For the past couple of years, the Washington Street Mall Management Company, aka the Business Improvement District (BID), has been petitioning city council to reconsider their anti-dog ordinance. Repeatedly, they were told the timing wasn’t right, and the item was never put on the agenda for discussion.

“It’s would be good for business,” said Dawn DeMayo, president of the BID and owner, along with her husband John, of two businesses on the mall, Gallery D’May Fine Art and D’May Home Gallery. Their cockapoo Skip is a common site in their stores. “Look at Carmel, Madison Avenue, the Ritz Carlton — these places all accommodate dogs. This happens everywhere, it seems, except the Washington Street Mall. Dogs are now considered a part of the family. They’re well behaved, socialized and well groomed. Allowing them on the mall — the center of Cape May — would improve the experience for visitors and residents. Dogs just make life better.”

Two years ago, a customer of DeMayo’s bought a $1,000 painting. After making the transaction, he decided to go for lunch at Tisha’s restaurant on the mall in order to think over another purchase, and he brought his dog along with him. On his way back to the gallery, he was stopped by a police officer who told him he could not be on the mall with his pet. Instead, the man needed to return to his car and drive to the back entrance of the gallery to pick up his artwork. The customer was so angry, he never made the second purchase. And while DeMayo says this is a law that’s mostly enforced in the summer months, when the police department has been staffed with extra officers, situations like this occur frequently enough to create an inhospitable atmosphere — something a tourist town can’t afford.

“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “We once saw a police officer kick an Ugly Mug patron off the mall while the customer was eating lunch on the restaurant’s patio, because he had his dog with him.”

Other business owners agree with DeMayo — Lindsay Casale, who owns the Maker’s Making shop along with her husband Dan, says she’s often “harbored fugitive dogs” in her store after their owners have been kicked off the mall. Will Riccio of The Sweet House said: “I’m not even a dog person, and I don’t have a problem with dogs on the mall.” Sue Tischler of Kaleidescope and Just for Laughs said: “I’m all for it. In my experience, dog owners are so nice and polite when they know they’re not going to be hit with negativity.”

But not everyone sees it this way. “One dog would be fine,” said Joe Bogle of The Original Fudge Kitchen. “Unfortunately, there is usually a gang of dogs, and they start barking at one another. I have seen children run away crying and petrified. Once, I saw an Irish setter snatch a doggie bag of food from the Mad Batter restaurant out of a man’s hand. The owner was an older woman who couldn’t control him. I’m not against dogs — who couldn’t love a dog? — but a pedestrian mall is not a good place for them. I’m on the BID, and I’m going to be fighting against it.”

Donna Reeman, frequent visitor to Cape May and guardian to a German Shepherd, agrees: “Now you have these retractable leashes that are 13 feet long. Before you know it, you’ve got a dog jumping on you and the owner doesn’t realize because he’s sipping coffee. Where I live in Media, Pennsylvania, dogs are allowed on State Street, which is like the mall. And the city is having all kinds of problems with irresponsible dog owners not keeping their dogs in check. I think the problem would be even worse in a smaller area, like you have here.”

Or as commenter Danielle Hinds posted on Cool Cape May: “I am a dog lover myself, but the layout of the mall doesn’t allow for adequate space for dogs to relieve themselves. Cape May is heavily reliant on aesthetic and I’m sure you can picture a dog in a natural position that would not be particularly appealing, especially for foot traffic.”

The enforcement

For some, the greatest problem with this law is not the law itself — it’s a lack of enforcement. Indeed, dogs can be seen on the mall nearly any hour of any given day, without consequence.

As online commenter Michele Jones recently posted on Cool Cape May: “I saw seven [dogs] at one time last Saturday. Love dogs, but I am a rule abider. Get rid of the rule if they are allowing them.” Others claim people are going so far as to purchase phony service dog vests for their pets, in order to skirt the rule.

But this rule, according to Cape May’s city council, is discretionarily enforced for a reason.

“People are afraid of dogs,” said councilmember Shaine Meier. “But the biggest problem is that not all dog owners are responsible. Unfortunately, when you have a couple of bad apples, the rest have to be subjected to the rules. But I will say I’m not a strong supporter of extreme policing of it. I like to think an officer can take this on a case-by-case basis. They have to use their best judgement.”

According to the Cape May Police Department, they do just that. “Our summer officers are told to enforce this ordinance, but as with motor vehicle violations, officers are allowed to use discretion and make an individual assessment,” said CMPD Lieutenant John Bobik. “In many cases, people simply aren’t aware of the law, and it’s a matter of educating them. Of course, I don’t hear every complaint, but I would say we don’t get a lot regarding dogs on the mall.”

The movement to change

For better or worse, dog sympathizers are increasingly putting down roots in Cape May, which may affect policy moving forward. The town’s hotels and motels — like the Marquis de Lafayette, Blue Fish Inn, Madison Avenue Beach Club, and Beach Shack — are increasingly dog-friendly, as are local restaurants. The Rusty Nail beach bar even offers a doggy menu, complete with Bowser Beer.

Cape May holds the title as unofficial bed and breakfast capital of the world, and several of these acclaimed B&Bs don’t just welcome dogs, they cater to them. Take the the BillMae cottage on Washington Street, which hosts a “yappy hour” on its porch for guests and their pets. Or the dog-friendly Highland House B&B in West Cape May, which has hosted “paw-tea” events for humans and dogs with all proceeds going to Animal Outreach of Cape May County, a nonprofit that operates an adoption center out of a former dental office on Park Boulevard. In fact, over the past two years, 37 Cape May businesses have contributed to this organization.

“Ten years ago, things were a bit more strict with dogs around town,” said Animal Outreach treasurer Cindy Huf. “Their public presence was more restricted. But things have loosened up. It seems like people are relaxing a bit more.”

At other businesses, every day is bring-your-dog-to-work day. Open the door to Sunset Liquors on Sunset Boulveard, and you’ll likely be greeted by black lab Ziggy. At the Wanderlust shop on Jefferson Street, it’s a mutt called Freckles that hangs out on the counter. At the Victorian Motel on Congress Place, golden retriever Joy helps check in guests. Meanwhile, golden doodle Henry can be found at the Chalfonte Hotel’s King Edward Bar. And my three dogs often spend time at the Sunset Boulevard headquarters of Exit Zero magazine, owned by my husband, which publishes photos of local dogs up for adoption in every issue.

Even the Washington Street Mall is home to dog-friendly storefronts. English Bulldog Doc Watson is as much a staple at Casale’s shoe store as the Merrell footwear collection. He’s been known to take an illegal trot down the mall to visit Cape May on Canvas art gallery, to see a portrait of himself. And, across the way, black lab Tug looks over merchandise in Galvanic lifestyle shop for men.

Advocates for amending dog policy in Cape May hope all of this pro-dog sentiment (and, in some cases, pro-dog pressure) from small business owners will lead to change. And, with a new administration taking office in January, this might just be a possibility.

“I think we need to look at all the ordinances pertaining to dogs — not just on the mall, but the boardwalk and the beaches,” said Mayor-Elect Chuck Lear. “I’ve thought of setting up a committee that will stay abreast of the issues around being a pet or dog-friendly town. I’m not saying everything will change — the mall is a somewhat confined area, and dogs can take up a lot of space — but I believe we do need to look at it.”

It’s a move supported by the city’s chamber of commerce. “We think Cape May is a dog-friendly town,” said marketing director Doreen Talley. “We have many businesses that are dog-friendly and others that are taking steps in that direction. But that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t back the city taking a closer look at how we treat our four-legged guests.”

The compromise

Some believe there’s a middle-ground to be reached — like amending ordinances to allow dogs on the mall only during certain, non-crowded hours.

“When the economy tanked a little, more house rentals on the island started allowing pets, and I’ve seen more dogs here every year,” said Linda Steenrod of the Billmae Cottage. “We need to think of positive ways to make Cape May welcoming to dog people, while making sure people who don’t care for dogs aren’t put in an uncomfortable position. There are solutions, and there are positive ones. We just have to look for them.”

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