Chapel Hill News

Commissioners delay new animal rules to improve appeals process

The Orange County Board of Commissioners have delayed new countywide animal rules while staff makes changes to creat a fairer appeals process for violations.

The commissioners could approve the new “Unified Animal Control Ordinance” at their Jan. 21 meeting.

Animal Services staff has spent a few years combining and clarifying the separate rules that have developed over time in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and the county into a single document. Hillsborough generally follows the county’s rules.

The commissioners last considered the revised rules in April 2014.

The revisions preserve each town’s unique laws – no dogs at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market, for instance – and are stricter in some cases. They make local animal laws “easy to access, easy to understand and relevant” to Orange County’s communities, Animal Services Director Bob Marotto said.

The revised rules are not perfect, he said, but there is room for adjustment.

“We think that the unified ordinance protects pets and people, gives them due process where due process has been previously absent, communicates clearly the responsiblities and obligations that exist in Orange County both for those owning pets and those that come into contact with pets,” he said.

The commissioners spent more than an hour debating the biggest remaining issue: how to handle appeals for violations involving vicious or nusiance animals, kennels and pet stores.

While Carrboro has its own appeals process, and plans to keep it, Marotto said, the county has not had a defined appeals process for at least a decade. Orange County handles about a dozen dangerous dog cases each year, he said.

The changes, county attorney Annette Moore said, are meant to give the Animal Services Advisory Board, or ASAB, full control of the process.

Commissioner Penny Rich questioned the makeup of the proposed appeals board – two ASAB members and one resident representing the town or county where the violation occurred. Residents may not think that offers a fair hearing, she said, because ASAB members, who advise staff on various animal control issues, could be seen as having a conflict of interest.

State law requires towns and counties to create an appeals board and hold hearings within 10 days of the initial decision. The appeals board’s decision can be appealed a second time to the local Superior Court. State law, however, does not address who should serve on an appeals board.

Commissioners Vice Chairman Mark Dorosin suggested appointing two residents and one ASAB member instead. Chairman Earl McKee, who had planned to vote against the revised ordinance because of the appeals board membership, called that a “good accommodation.”

The commissioners also asked staff to clarify a rule prohibiting either party in an appeal hearing from bringing an attorney. A pet owner should be able to bring an attorney, Commissioner Mia Burroughs said, even if the attorney can’t speak for the pet owner.

Issues resolved

Three other issues that previously caused public concern have been addressed, Marotto and Moore said, including the definition of a “watch dog,” whether dogs that attack trespassers are considered vicious, and how to address wandering livestock and public nusiance animals.

The words “watch dogs” have been deleted, Moore said, because those are covered under “sentry dogs” and “patrol dogs,” which are dogs that have been trained to attack.

The concern about dogs attacking trespassers was addressed by requiring property owners to post warning or no trespassing signs, she said. Animal control also will have discretion in cases where the dog might reasonably be expected to defend itself, its owner or its owner’s property, she said.

“In other words, a dog was acting like a dog,” she said. “In those circumstances, the dog would not be deemed vicious.”

The Animal Services director or a designated official also would have discretion in deciding whether livestock and other large animals are a public nusiance when they wander off the owner’s property. A rule that is too specific, Moore has said, could create more problems.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb