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Summer rules for leashing dogs on Hilton Head Island's beaches are kicking in, but leash rules for the rest of the year remain unsettled more than a year after the town asked the state attorney general to help resolve a dispute.
For almost 25 years, a local law has allowed dogs to enjoy the beach leash-free during the off-season as long as they're under "positive voice control." Dogs are prohibited altogether from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from the Friday before Memorial Day through Labor Day.
After a woman was bitten in January 2009, a resident complained the town was violating a state law that seems to indicate unleashed dogs are not allowed on public property. The town's legal department agreed, interpreting the confusing state law as trumping the island's rules.
Town Council members planned to lobby the state legislature to amend the law, but Mayor Tom Peeples decided the town first should ask state Attorney General Henry McMaster to issue a written opinion.
That was 13 months ago.
McMaster still has not ruled, assistant town manager Greg Deloach said.
"My understanding is that it's an extraordinarily complicated legal issue," said Mark Plowden, communications director for the attorney general's office.
Peeples has said the island has had few cases -- about five -- of dogs biting people during the past decades.
Town Council member John Safay said he hasn't heard any complaints from residents about dogs on the beach since the controversy bubbled up last year. Most owners don't create problems for beachgoers, but it takes only one dog whose owner can't control it to "ruin it for everyone," he added.
Peeples said he's heard little since last year from residents who want to change the town's ordinance.
"Most people in the town are happy with the law the way it is and hope it doesn't change," he said.
The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office reports all incidents of animal bites -- dog, cat and raccoon -- to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
According to DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick, 236 animal bites were investigated in southern Beaufort County during 2009.
Myrick could not say how many of those incidents were on Hilton Head because the department doesn't track the bites by municipality.
Attorney Patrick Carr, who practices personal injury law in southern Beaufort County, said he handled several dog bite cases in the past year, but none on Hilton Head.
Sheriff's Office deputies police the beaches and ticket those who violate the summer's leash rules, said Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Sgt. Robin McIntosh.