SAN DIEGO (AP) - A squabble over a Southern California cove has people taking sides between two unlikely, but equally adorable, causes.
On one side are residents trying to return the La Jolla beach known as Children's Pool to the days when it was a kids' swimming hole. On the other side are the advocates for the plump seals that go there to sunbathe with their young pups.
Now a judge is expected to decide whether the cove where a seawall was built in the 1930s to calm the Pacific waters so children could play there needs to be cordoned off year round to protect harbor seals.
Friday's hearing comes a year after it appeared the city had ironed out its long dispute with seal advocates.
The city council voted last May for a year-round rope barrier to keep back the thousands of visitors who come to see the federally protected seal colony, which can number up to 200 at certain times.
The city also hired a part-time park ranger to diffuse the situation but to no avail.
Those against restricting the public beach have set up colorful beach umbrellas and chairs inside the area that the city ropes off during pupping season from December to May.
Opposing activists now man tables on a cliff overlooking the cove to gather support. They have at times gotten into heated arguments in front of bewildered tourists. Each side posts YouTube videos, accusing the other of harassment.
Meanwhile, the San Diego Planning Commission tossed the city council's decision, saying it would violate the city's coastal plan by interfering with beach access.
Seal advocates sued, saying the panel did not have the authority to overrule the council. The court will now decide.
The city's policy calls for people and seals to share the Children's Pool, which was created by a sea wall built in 1931 through a gift from La Jolla philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps.
The state, which owns the cove, later placed the beach in a trust and granted the trust to the city of San Diego. The trust lists possible public uses for it, including a children's beach, a park - but for years it was used as a kids' swimming hole.
Seals began showing up in increasing numbers during the 1990s. In 1997, the city posted a warning that the pool shouldn't be used because it was contaminated with seal waste.
Some say that's when the seal colony became entrenched.
In 2009, the Legislature added language to the trust allowing for a marine mammal park. The spot is one of only two Southern California mainland beaches where harbor seals give birth, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The Animal Protection and Rescue League says there has been a sharp rise in people bothering the seals in the past year.
They say they have caught people taking down the rope or jumping over it and then trying to pet the seals. Others have walked within inches of them, sending the mammals scurrying into the water.
The city has hired private security guards to report problems to police and plans to hire a park ranger (the previous one left) this summer, the city attorney's office said.
"The situation has escalated," said Dorota Valli, who coordinates the Animal Protection and Rescue League's campaign. "The opposition has been more aggressive, more organized."
Opponents have accused Valli's group of taunting visitors and manufacturing the seal harassment scenes to force the city to declare an emergency so a permanent rope is put up. Seal advocates deny that.
The judge decided earlier to keep the pupping season rope up until the hearing.
"The public's right to access Children's Pool is in more danger than ever before," says the website, Friends of the Children's Pool, which opposes the permanent rope.
The web site's authors go on to say: "The name says it all... The Children's Pool was created specifically for the children to learn ocean swimming and appreciation of a wonderful water resource."
The group says they are not against seals but are against restricting access to the public.
On a recent afternoon, Valli grabbed a megaphone after spotting a teenage girl hop over the pupping season rope and do a handstand in front of the seals.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please stay behind the rope," she told the group.
Jordan Berreman, 20, yelled over from a park bench near Valli's table: "It's a bummer the rope is still up. Pupping season is over. It's supposed to be down for recreational purposes."
Berreman's mother, Debra, piped in as Valli talked about her cause to protect the seals: "There's not just one side to this. There's politics on both sides."
Debra Berreman said Jordan swam at the beach as a kid.
"This was a family beach," she said. "Now the sharks are coming out all along the coast because there are so many seals. Some people say they've already been bumped (by sharks)."
Seal supporters say there is no evidence seals are attracting sharks to the area.
Berreman, 50, believes seals and humans can share the beach. She supports a rope up during pupping season but then she said it should come down.
"This is the wild, just like in any national park," she said. "You don't have a rope up at Yosemite or Yellowstone. So why is this any different?"