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Carroll's dog law could have teeth

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — A proposed ordinance to regulate roaming pets isn't a leash law — it's a no trespassing law involving dogs.

County Attorney Jim Cornwell spoke to the Carroll supervisors at their Nov. 16 meeting about the proposal meant to rein in dogs that go off their owner's property and become nuisances to others.

This came after a Woodlawn resident twice complained of a neighbor's dog that would chase her and her child on their property.

"The Carroll County Board of Supervisors is becoming increasingly concerned about the risks to public health and safety posed by dogs when allowed or permitted by their owners to trespass upon private property," the proposal says.

This ordinance, if approved, would try to prevent dogs from trespassing on private property or running at large on public property, like roads.

County officials stressed that this ordinance would be citizen complaint driven — Carroll's animal control officer would not cruise the roads looking for trespassing dogs, but would respond when a person requests help with bothersome stray animals.

"If your neighbor's dogs come on your property and you don't care, there's no problem," he said. "If your dogs go on somebody else's property and they don't care, there's no problem."

This wouldn't preclude neighbors from calling each other to talk about any dog problems they might have, Cornwell added, but maybe those neighbors can't see eye to eye on these issues.

The idea for this ordinance came from Cornwell's experience in a similar situation in Craig County involving buffalo as the trespassing animal.

If complaints about specific animals persist, then the animal control officer would pick the offending dog up, Cornwell said. Hopefully, the dog would have a license in order to get the owner's contact information.

As written, the proposal would make violation a class 1 misdemeanor.

Cornwell hoped this could spur people to be good neighbors.

Supervisors' Chairman David Hutchins wanted to make double sure that this ordinance has nothing in common with a leash law and that citizens have to fill out complaints as to dog trespassing.

It's no different than if a person trespasses and the owner doesn't want him there, Cornwell noted. "I order them to leave and if they come back, I can have him arrested."

In situations with dogs, the animal control officer can tell the pet owner that the property owner doesn't want the dog around, Cornwell said.

How about having a limited period of time that the no trespassing lasts from the first complaint? Supervisor Sam Dickson wondered. County officials agreed that one year would be long enough for the warning to count.

Supervisor Wes Hurst asked what the penalty for a class I misdemeanor was?

That's up to a year in jail and or a fine of up to $2,500. It's up to a judge what to impose, and the fine and jail time often would be less than the maximums.

Hurst noted that the supervisors wanted the ordinance "to have teeth," but didn't necessarily want someone to go to a jail for a year if their dog got loose.

He suggested amending the penalty to a class 3 misdemeanor, which has a maximum fine of $500 and no jail time.

The supervisors have a responsibility to protect the citizens, McMillian said.

Of course, dogs can't read no trespassing signs, and he'd hate to see a law muzzle the dogs.

The supervisors had tried to approach these issues in other ways, like including excessive barking in a noise ordinance, but that idea wasn't well received by the public, Cornwell noted.

How about making the penalty tougher if the offenses continue? Supervisor Andy Jackson asked.

That's possible, but he said he didn't want to complicate the issue, Cornwell acknowledged. Writing it as a class I misdemeanor on first offense may be overkill.

Another thing to consider is that an offense that brings with it the possibility of jail time could lead to the defendant asking for a court-appointed attorney, Cornwell added. There would be a cost to that.

Hutchins asked Animal Control Officer Terry Woods if this would help him with enforcement. Woods felt it could provide solutions to some problems he's seen, though it might increase some calls for assistance.

The supervisors tabled the ordinance until Cornwell had time to make the suggested changes.