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County plans overhaul of animal control code

Existing animal ordinances were written in 1985

Photo Credit: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Washington County is considering a major overhaul of its animal control ordinance.A lot of things have changed since 1985, when Washington County approved its current animal control ordinance.

With population growth and major changes sweeping over the community in the nearly 30 years since that ordinance was approved, county officials are now engaged in not just tweaks, but a complete overhaul of the county’s codes related to animals.

“I’ve been here six years, and it was very clear to me in my first year that there were many deficiencies in the ordinance,” said Deborah Wood, manager of Washington County Animal Services and the Bonnie L. Hays Small Animal Shelter in Hillsboro.

Wood pointed out that Animal Services is responsible for enforcing the county’s codes regarding animals and has been pushing for modernization of the ordinance.

“Animal Services requested the proposed update. We have been concerned for some time regarding the fact that it was outdated,” Wood said.

Washington County Chairman Andy Duyck said a rewrite of the animal control code has been in the works for many months.

“It has been recognized for several years that our code needed revision and updating,” Duyck said.

One significant change in approach is obvious when comparing the opening paragraph of the existing ordinance against the draft. In the 1985 version, dogs are clearly the primary focus: “In order to protect the health, safety and welfare of residents and citizens of the county and to provide for control of dogs and protection of dogs and animals therein, the Board of County Commissioners ... does enact the following provisions, which may be referred to ... as the dog control ordinance.”

The 2014 draft is much more encompassing: “This chapter shall be known as the ‘Animal Services Code.’ The purpose is ... to provide rules and regulations governing the keeping, licensing and control of dogs and other animals in Washington County ... to reflect the needs and realities of modern animal control and animal welfare issues by creating ordinances that are enforceable, reflective of community expectations and a practical tool in our efforts to hold animal owners accountable to reasonable standards of responsibility ... while promoting safety and compatibility between the animal and human residents of Washington County.”

The draft of the proposed new ordinance stretches over 20 pages, covering everything from dogs and cats to livestock, including sections dealing with topics such as putting biting dogs in quarantine; kennel licensing; animal abuse and neglect; animal impoundment; unattended animals; and rabies vaccinations.

Photo Credit: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Deborah Wood is manager of Washington County Animal Services, which is responsible for enforcing the countys codes regarding animals. Wood wants the county to modernize its animal control ordinances. “There are a large number of changes we are proposing,” Wood said. “This would eliminate the old code and replace it with a new code rather than redlining the old one. It’s quite extensive.”

Wood said one “area of deficiency” in the current ordinance is the county’s ability to deal effectively with dangerous dogs.

“Dog attacks are fairly rare in Washington County,” Wood explained. “There are about 350 dog bites a year in Washington County. They range from grandma’s unpleasant dog that breaks the skin, to very serious attacks on a person or another pet.”

Wood said the new ordinance would provide an expanded range of remedies in the event of infractions.

“There will be more strictness and more tools,” Wood said. “Right now, if a dog attacks someone and returns to its owner’s property, we don’t have the ability to hold the dog pending legal resolution. We all agree there is a problem with dangerous dogs. This will give us more tools than we have currently, and would give neighborhoods more protection against dogs that are believed to be dangerous.”

Wood pointed out that in addition to the changes in the Animal Services Code, there are related changes in the level of the county’s enforcement in the event of violations, including changes in the fine structure.

“Currently, all violations of the code — no matter how minor or major — can receive a fine of up to $500,” Wood said. “The code doesn’t differentiate between, for example, a barking dog and a serious attack in which a dog mauls someone. The new code will have varying fines for varying offenses, ranging from as low as $60 to as high as $2,000.”

Another important issue is how to deal with barking dogs.

“It’s a constant complaint,” Wood said. “We get literally thousands of calls on barking dog complaints. Currently, we’ll respond if there are five minutes of continuous barking in a 30-minute period, but we need to have a clear definition so the community has something in writing and know when we are going to respond.”

According to Duyck, no specific incidents have sparked the current move to rework the county’s animal control ordinances.

“The takeaway from this is that the purpose is not as much for safety as it is for clarity and consistency,” Duyck said. “Our code had vague interpretations that made it difficult to administer, and sometimes arbitrary in how it was applied. This new language clarifies it.”

Although there are a large number of changes expected with the new ordinance, Wood said one change that would not be made is an increase in animal licensing fees. There is no plan to increase fees in 2015.

Wood said there would be several opportunities for citizens to comment on the proposed revisions. There will be two opportunities for people to go to the Bonnie L. Hays Small Animal Shelter and ask questions or express their concerns in an informal setting. Also, a formal hearing is planned before the Washingtontou County Board of Commissioners. That hearing is expected to come in late January, but the date has not yet been officially scheduled.

“We definitely want to have people take a look at what we’re proposing,” Wood said. “It’s a great opportunity to have questions answered. Now is the time for people to talk about this. We are optimistic we’ll have a terrific code at the end of the process.”

If the commissioners pass the revised ordinance, it would go into effect within 30 days after approval.

Wood said she believes the proposed new animal code will benefit the entire community. “We are very excited about this ordinance,” she said. “It will be better for pets, people and the community.”

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