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La Plata County barking dog law advances

Some residents complain government shouldn’t regulate
La Plata County commissioners, from left, Gwen Lachelt, Brad Blake and Julie Westendorff, listen to county attorney Kathleen Lyon on Tuesday about the change to the county’s proposed barking-dog ordinance at the county’s Administration Building.

La Plata County commissioners are moving forward with the county’s first regulations to rein in barking dogs and expect to enact the new rules by year’s end.

The county has spent a year drafting code to address nuisance barking and animal cruelty.

The public’s interest has focused overwhelmingly on the former, with residents complaining lack of regulation lets obnoxious dogs run wild with no repercussions for their owners, particularly in densely developed county communities such as Forest Lakes or Durango West.

On Tuesday, commissioners heard some of the first public complaints from residents who took the opposite side – arguing dog barking isn’t a governmental issue.

“I’ve talked to officers that have lived in and worked in counties that have a nuisance barking law, and it is a bureaucratic nightmare,” said Paula Watson, a county resident and owner-director of Wolfwood Refuge.

“I have a problem we’re trying to control this on a county level. I think we need stringent dog owner laws; it’s the barking that I think is problematic.”

“There are other noises that go on for hours at higher levels: motorcycles, dirt bikes, loud music – we all tolerate each other,” said Ginger Jenks.

“I think it’s inappropriate for the county to dig in so deeply. These are city types of things, not county-type things. When you’re asking for tax increases, this is not the best use of resources.”

La Plata County’s animal control regulations were adopted in 1997 and last amended in 2003.

Until now, they haven’t addressed nuisance barking, which is defined as “loud, habitual and persistent” barking for a continuous 20 minutes.

However, owners of dogs that don’t meet the 20-minute standard may be subject to penalty if the animal is disturbing the peace of a “reasonable person.”

Under the proposed ordinance, a written statement from a complainant would prompt animal control to issue a warning to the offender, who would have 10 days to fix the problem.

After that, fines would begin at $50 and a second offense could mean a $250 penalty and a court appearance.

The document recommends rather than requires the complainant to provide demonstrative evidence.

A previous draft was altered to reduce the number of people required to bring a complaint from two to one.

“The concern was that if we required more than one, it would lead to people pitting neighbor against neighbor,” county attorney Kathleen Lyon said.

Exemptions apply to working dogs, such as those that protect livestock, licensed facilities such as animal shelters, and dogs who bark when provoked by such noises as made by wildlife or sirens.

Regulations and fines also apply to failure to vaccinate dogs, failure to register guard dogs and vicious dogs, provoking animals, interfering with animal control officers and animal cruelty.

Since last fall, staff members have debated a Pandora’s Box of issues that could be attached to the regulations, including spats between neighbors, vindictive people abusing the code, difficulty proving complaints and a heavier, costlier workload for the District Attorney and Animal Control.

Until they’re in practice, the cost to implement the controls is unclear.

Provided the regulations escalate to citations, collected fines could sustain the program, but it also could mean a need for additional resources.

“We don’t have the foresight to determine what the demand will be, and that will drive the cost,” County Manager Joe Kerby said.

“The Humane Society has committed to try and enforce without adding additional staff.”

The ordinance would be instated for a one-year test run, to be revisited if it needs massaging or takes a major toll on county resources.

Chris Nelson, director of animal services at the La Plata County Humane Society, had reservations about subjective language, such as “reasonable person,” and placing a 20-minute standard into the rules, as people define nuisance barking differently.

Nelson fields regular calls about county dogs barking, though he doesn’t track them because there is no ordinance to enforce.

“This is the number one issue I’ve gotten comments on, unsolicited,” Commissioner Julie Westendorff said.

“We don’t want to over-capture, but we also want to address legitimate concerns. I don’t think we’ll see the worst-case scenarios.”

The board took no formal action Tuesday, but it agreed to forward the ordinance to a second reading and vote in December.

jpace@durangoherald.com

Proposed barking dog code (PDF)

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