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Does La Plata County’s barking dog ordinance have teeth?

New regulations will be tested in court jury trial in January

La Plata County officials will find out if the county’s newly instituted barking dog ordinance has any teeth when a neighbor dispute over noisy pets heads to trial early next year.

The new law, which took effect in March 2017, came in response to an outpouring of complaints from rural residents fed up with barking dogs. The new law allows the county to impose fines and court appearances on owners of habitually vocal animals.

Travis Woehrel, director of Animal Protection, the agency that enforces the barking dog ordinance, told county commissioners on Nov. 20 that 200 warnings have been written since the regulations took effect.

Woehrel did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment for this story.

A first complaint generally results in a warning, which gives the offender 10 days to correct the problem. If the issue is not resolved, a first violation carries a $50 fine, plus court costs, which ends up totaling about $100. Subsequent violations carry higher fines.

But one case, in particular, will be headed to a trial before La Plata County Judge Dondi Osborne in January.

Champagne

“This will be the first time the ordinance is subject to trial proceedings,” said 6th Judicial District Attorney Christian Champagne.

The court case stems from a complaint La Plata County resident Norman Fish lodged against his neighbor, Daniel Gregory. Attempts to contact Fish were unsuccessful, and Gregory did not respond to requests for comment.

According to county documents, Fish said Gregory’s dogs barked at all hours from his property near Purgatory Resort.

“The dog owner (Gregory) has no concern about the disruption his dogs cause to neighbors and the many days of disturbed sleep,” Fish wrote in his complaint.

After the issue could not be resolved, Animal Protection wrote Gregory a citation, which he pleaded not guilty to, sending the conflict to court.

But Champagne said because of the nature of the barking dog ordinance, it might be a tough case.

“The ordinance is very challenging for us in a criminal court because the burden of proof is high,” Champagne said. “And it’s very difficult for any law enforcement or victim to obtain the necessary evidence to prove the case.”

However, Champagne said, “it’s an important issue in the community and people are rightly upset when they have a dog barking like that. But it’s a really challenging thing to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.”

County Manager Joanne Spina said it would be good to find out what the courts think about the ordinance.

“Hopefully, this is not something we’ll have to deal with all the time,” she said.

Overall, the county’s barking dog ordinance seems to be working well, Woehrel told commissioners last month.

When the regulations first went into effect, Woehrel said a majority of complaints were resolved by opening a line of communication between neighbors.

Animal Protection, for instance, responds to only a handful of second-time offenders.

But as the more-reasonable disputes were resolved, Animal Protection and prosecutors were left with deeper dogfights between neighbors at odds. If the county required at least two different sets of neighbors to complain about barking dogs, there would be only a handful of issues, Woehrel said at the meeting.

One issue with the ordinance, Woehrel said, is that people are taking advantage of the working dog exemption. In the ordinance, dogs are allowed to make noise if they are guarding livestock or performing some other work task.

In more than one instance, people who have a complaint filed against them and their dogs will buy a chicken or two to avoid a citation.

“Now we have a lot of one-chicken farms going up around the county,” Woehrel said.

He said there’s “no reason to abandon” the ordinance right now. Instead, he suggested waiting until the Gregory case is resolved, and tweak the regulation, if necessary.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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