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Listen up dog owners, La Plata County drafts barking ordinance

When rural dogs are barking, La Plata County law is silent. But that’s about to change.

County staff has produced a preliminary draft of the county’s first ordinance on nuisance barking, a topic that riles rural residents on either side of the fence.

The hot-button item, which exempts livestock guardian dogs, is laid out as follows in the draft:

“It is unlawful to keep a dog that disturbs its neighbors by making loud, habitual and persistent barking, howling, yelping or whining noises for a continuous 20 minutes during the day (7 a.m. to 9 p.m.); continuous 15 minutes during the night (9:01 p.m. to 6:59 a.m.); or for a cumulative 90 minutes in any 24-hour period.”

La Plata County Humane Society contracts an officer through the Sheriff’s Office to police animal complaints in municipal boundaries. Animal Protection Director Chris Nelson said because of the way enforcement is outlined in the draft, the Humane Society might not have to hire additional personnel as initially predicted.

“In the city, if a call comes in, our officer or the police department responds to the call. They listen to see if the dog is barking and act accordingly,” Nelson

said. “The way it looks in this ordinance, the burden is on the reporting party to gather evidence.”

The draft suggests offenders receive a written warning from an animal control officer provided at least one neighbor signs an affidavit attesting to the nuisance barking. The owner then would have 10 days to rectify the situation before a citation or summons could be issued. Warnings could be mailed, personally delivered or posted at the owner’s premises.

Citations would have to be issued within six months of the warning and would require at least two complainants from different households to say there’s a problem, unless only one neighbor is within 500 feet of the offender’s property.

Video evidence would have to be provided, and anonymous complaints would not be accepted.

The draft proposes a warning before the offender could be slapped with a $50 fine for the first offense, $100 for the second and $250 plus court appearances for third and subsequent offenses. Habitual offenders could pay upward of $500.

In 2014, there were 321 reported barking complaints in Durango, and only two citations issued – warnings are effective, according to Animal Control.

Because there are no rules to enforce in the county, Animal Control can’t quantify the problem, Nelson said, but he fields plenty of calls about it, which has prompted the county to draft the ordinance. Commissioners will review the draft again this month.

But statistics are irrelevant to the sleepless neighbor.

Patrick Fredricks used to live in a neighborhood off Florida Road. He has since moved, but during the summer, a neighbor’s dog would bark incessantly, Fredricks said, waking him, his wife and daughter.

“I think it’s different when houses are spread out, but when they’re so closely built together, I think it warrants some action,” he said.

There is some grass-roots regulation: Most homeowners associations in county communities have language written into their covenants about barking dogs. Some guidelines are vague; others, like Edgemont Highlands’, give the board authority to remove dogs considered a nuisance.

Longtime HOA member Beverly Lawrence said nuisance dogs are generally not a problem there, where homes are between a quarter acre and more than an acre apart.

“If I get notification or calls, I can call the owner, and in a lot of cases, they don’t know the dog is barking – they’re at work,” Lawrence said. “We have wording in our guidelines that allows us to take stronger action if need be, but we work with people. No one has ever had their dog removed.”

Bill Malandra, president of the Edgemont Ranch Property Owners Association, said yes, there are dogs, and yes, they bark.

“When it becomes an issue is when the dog is tied up all day long and howling,” he said. “Usually, it has to do with dogs barking at night or early in the morning.”

Violators are given an “initial friendly reminder,” Malandra said. A series of fines come to repeat offenders. The first is $25, growing to $50 and $100. It doesn’t happen often, but it has happened.

But Forest Lakes, which has no HOA, is without governance – and it’s a problem for resident Sally MacDowell, a vocal proponent for a county crackdown on loud canines.

MacDowell has lived on a half-acre in Forest Lakes since 2000, and she said “it’s been hell” because of barking dogs, especially in summer. “The solution would be to require people to put their dogs inside in the daytime or have their vocal chords taken out,” she said.

MacDowell admits she blasts an air horn when she hears unruly dogs. She also leaves notes on people’s doors.

“Out here, we have to take it into our own hands,” she said. “I don’t want to just go around and say, ‘Your dogs are barking.’ I want some power, an ordinance with someone who would respond to it. I wouldn’t hesitate to prosecute.”

As with any new law, some unknowns won’t be evident until the ordinance is in practice. The burden of proof and lack of anonymity for the complainant could have a chilling effect. Or if the caseload increases, it could bog down the court system.

“Any time you add more ordinances, you add more cases,” Assistant District Attorney Christian Champagne said. “We can always make do, but that’s not our top priority. Ideally, we’d find an alternative resolution.”

Champagne said dog-at-large and other domestic animal cases are some of the court’s most difficult, “because people feel so strongly about it.”

At a heavily attended meeting on the issue in September, Champagne said a barking dog ordinance could burden the court system. Rather than hire a special prosecutor, he proposed animal control officers deliver the facts themselves in court and let a judge decide.

The public will be able to sound off on the barking dog issue in the coming months as the county continues massaging the ordinance, though Nelson said enforcement would be but a last resort in the best scenarios.

“The best thing to solve this is to be neighborly,” he said. “If someone’s dog is barking and being a nuisance, fix the problem.”

jpace@durangoherald.com

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