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Court Says Seals Must Go, But New Law Says “Not So Fast”

Seals sun bathe at Children's Pool beach in La Jolla.

Photo by Chilsta / Flickr

Above: Seals sun bathe at Children's Pool beach in La Jolla.

Video unavailable. Read transcript below.

Above: KPBS reporter Sharon Heilbrunn asks visitors at the Children's Pool in La Jolla what they think about the controversy.

— Will the seals at Children's Pool in La Jolla be forced to find a different home, or will they be allowed to stay? Earlier today it seemed as if the seals were sure to be evicted. A judge gave the city of San Diego 72 hours to comply with a court order to remove the colony of harbor seals from Children's Pool, restoring the area to its 1941 pre-seal condition.

But then late today Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger complicated the debate by signing into law a measure giving control of Children's Pool back to the city of San Diego, and some City Hall watchers believe the City Council leans toward allowing the seals to remain undisturbed at the site.

Whether the court's 72-hour order will remain in effect or be changed due to the new law may not be clear at least until tomorrow -- or maybe later.

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and Assistant City Attorney for Civil Litigation Andrew Jones may provide some clarity when they hold a scheduled news briefing tomorrow at 11 a.m.

Responding to the earlier court order today, Jones told Judge Yuri Hofmann that the city will rely on an acoustical system using the sounds of barking dogs to shoo the seals away from the beach. That was before the governor responded to a request from Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, to expedite signing of the Children's Pool measure.

The Children's Pool, also known as Casa Beach, is protected by a sea wall built through a gift by the late philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps. The beach was given to the city on the condition that it maintain it exclusively as a public park and swimming area.

Kehoe's new law amends a 1931 trust that designated the beach as a bathing area for children only, to also allow for a marine mammal habitat. Thus the City Council could apparently decide to allow the seals to remain.

Responding to the earlier court order today, the city said the dog- barking plan to rid the beach of the seals -- at a cost of an estimated $688,000 -- will require a person walking up and down the beach to make sure the animals are gone, Jones said.

If the effort to rid the area of seals does go ahead, officials were apparently concerned that demonstrators could show up. Jones said police officers will be on notice in case people who are against the dispersal plan cause any problems.

The process could be never-ending according to experts, he said. ``We'll do what is necessary to get rid of the seals, as best we can,'' Jones said outside court. ``We certainly can't do anything that will physically harm them. So we'll do the best we can with the devices and the methods that we have to be sure that we disperse the seals in the best way that we can.'' But that was before the governor signed the new law about seals at Children's Pool.

Any plan that the city uses to rid the area of seals must comply with environmental regulations, Jones said.

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders -- before the new law was signed – said the city will comply with the judge's order.

``While all research indicates the costly undertaking of seal dispersal is unlikely to achieve the goal of improving water quality at the Children's Pool, the city must comply with Judge Hofmann's order,'' Sanders said.

``Therefore, the city of San Diego will implement a plan to disperse seals within the next 72 hours in order to avoid the heavy financial sanctions the judge has threatened,'' the mayor said.

He added: ``We will disperse the seals as humanely as possible and in accordance with the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, and I urge the passionate activists on both sides of this issue to behave peacefully and to cooperate with law enforcement officers who will be on site during dispersal activities.''

Sanders was not immediately available to comment on the situation after the new law was signed.

Kehoe expressed appreciation for the governor signing the Children's Pool bill into law, and she said she's optimistic it will help settle the controversy.

``I'm grateful for the governor's quick signing of this legislation and hopefully it will bring some calm to an overheated discussion,'' Kehoe said in a statement.

``Our community has struggled through this debate for more than 16 years and now the future use of the Children's Pool rests with the San Diego City Council -- as it rightfully should,'' she said.

Paul Kennerson, the attorney for plaintiff Valerie O'Sullivan, said the time for the city to act is now.

``If the city of San Diego had done what is was supposed to do from 1930 to 1994, when this problem started building up -- for a very few dollars -- the damage would not have been done, the beach would not have been fouled, the place would have been preserved in the state if was supposed to be preserved in,'' Kennerson said. ``The city has to obey the law.''

Supporters of the seals have sought an emergency injunction in an effort to temporarily block Hofmann's ruling.

Ginny Uybungco, of Friends of the La Jolla Seals, said the judge's decision is more of a setback to the people who want to see the seals than it is to the animals themselves.

``This is a treasure for the state of California,'' Uybungco said. ``In this one speck of the universe, they (the seals) have one beach in (Southern California) to rear their pups and raise their pups.

``Because this is not just about the swimming, it's about everybody who comes to visit the seals. And if there are no seals, we have no tourists,'' Uybungco said. ``In a slowing economy, we need people to come there and sponsor a wonderful treasure that the city offers.''

Another Superior Court judge in 2005 ordered San Diego to restore Children's Pool to its pre-seal condition by dredging the beach to reduce the bacteria levels caused by seal excrement.

Hofmann ruled in May that the law requires the removal and dispersal of the seals from the area.

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