Chapel Hill News

Orange County board wants more work on animal control rules

Orange County Animal Services director Bob Marotto
Orange County Animal Services director Bob Marotto

The Orange County Board of Commissioners has asked Animal Services staff to find the middle ground in a conflict over proposed countywide animal control rules.

The commissioners say the rules don’t clearly define how a “watchdog” is different from any dog, or why rural dogs might be considered “dangerous” or “vicious” if they bite people without permission to be on private land. Staff also needs to better define trespassing, they said.

There are separate rules for dogs that are professionally trained and registered as sentry or attack dogs.

At a meeting Tuesday night, Animal Services Director Bob Marotto said the goal is to have one set of flexible rules for rural and urban residents. Some specific town rules, such as those for nuisance animals and chicken coops, would not change.

The new rules would make enforcement more effective and less confusing for animal control officers, Marotto said. They also would set up an appeals process for animal-related citations and resolve lingering issues from the 2005 creation of the Orange County Animal Services department, he said.

The proposal would replace rules adopted in the late 1980s.

Other proposed changes would add recovery fees for strays and add requirements for inserting microchips on strays and dangerous or vicious dogs. The rules also would empower animal-control officers to investigate cruelty cases and authorize the animal services director to decide when loose cows and other livestock pose a public nuisance.

Under state law, the commissioners must vote twice if the first vote isn’t unanimous. If a majority of the board rejects the ordinance in the first vote, a second vote is not required. They only need a majority to approve the changes with the second vote.

Bonnie Hauser, president of the rural advocacy group Orange County Voice, and others said the proposed definitions and rules could put serious burdens on rural pet owners. They understand why one set of county and town rules is needed, but they also want an independent appeals process and more discussion before making big changes to rural rules.

The county’s first draft made landowners and their dogs responsible for any trespassers bitten on private property. The second draft does not hold landowners liable if the bite victim falls under the state’s legal definition of trespassing, which involves the intent or commission of a crime.

Animal services officials said concerns about the appeals process are unfounded, because the board relies on the facts and existing laws. State law only requires a local appeals process for dangerous dog declarations. Residents would get five days to file an appeal under the new rules.

Commissioners’ vice chairman Earl McKee said the board does a good job, but an independent appeals board might make residents more comfortable. Other counties, including Durham, have independent boards that work with the local sheriff’s office, he said.

Another option is to cite the dog’s owner for a first-time offense on private property, commissioners’ Chairman Barry Jacobs said. Commissioner Mark Dorosin suggested handling each case independently.

“I think we’ve got to find this balance, and that’s what the appeals process should do,” Dorosin said. “What we’ve got to get away from is there’s either this blanket immunity or strict liability.”

Carrboro and Chapel Hill leaders also will have to approve the draft Unified Animal Control Ordinance before it becomes official.