NEWS- Ruff story: Will neighbors bark out summonses?
If your neighbor can't keep his dog quiet, it may soon cost him.
The Albemarle Board of Supervisors will meet next week to discuss a proposed ordinance allowing frustrated neighbors to request a summons for the owner of a barking dog. After 30 consecutive minutes of barking, a dog could be setting his owner up for conviction of a Class Three misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500.
John Hong is excited by the potential new law. He says his peaceful home was regularly disturbed by a neighbor's barking dog, and his efforts to solve the problem by alerting his neighbors to his concerns were unsuccessful.
"They just didn't care," says Hong, himself a dog owner. Such a law, had it existed, would have given Hong direct recourse to solve the problem. But while Hong loves the idea of a barking-dog ordinance, others say it's rife with problems.
"The mischief that the law could create is probably worse than what we're facing now," says attorney David Heilberg, who imagines false accusations being lobbed by feuding neighbors.
"It's one neighbor's word against another neighbor's word, and that's a real problem," Heilberg adds, not just for the accused but for courts that could become clogged with such complaints– whether true or false. "Public defenders have more important issues to defend."
Heilburg's not alone. Hank Martin, chairman of property rights group Forever Albemarle, agrees that barking dogs should be silenced– but he says dog disputes can and should be settled outside the courtroom. "I hate to see the government intervene on a barking dog," he says.
While the county code does have a noise ordinance for most man-made sounds, barking dogs are specifically exempt. A separate provision allows animal control officers to investigate whether barking might stem from animal cruelty or neglect, but if the animals are discovered to be fed, watered, and sheltered, nuisance barking can continue. The quest for a legal muzzle last got a public hearing before the Supervisors in 1996 when a similar ordinance was defeated, and the Board directed all such cases be handled through civil suits.
Hong, who writes the "Dr. Hook" column in this newspaper, brought the issue to the attention of the Hook's "Tough Customer" columnist last winter, when he was in the middle of his dog dust-up with his neighbor ["Barking dogs: There ought to be a law," February 14].
"He would leave [the dogs] there for days at a time and they would bark 24/7," Hong says of his neighbor. Hong wasn't the only neighbor disturbed by the dogs; some even alleged that the animals were dangerous. A neighborhood petition to silence the dogs gathered 12 signatures but had no effect.
Hong called animal control several times and even went to his homeowners' association with his complaints, but the barking continued. Finally, Hong's lawyer called the offending neighbors to discuss possible civil recourse. The dogs, he says, suddenly were quieted.
After his months-long ordeal, Hong believes the new ordinance won't only be good for neighbors; it'll be good for the dogs.
"If the dogs bark for 30 minutes straight, you know they're being neglected," Hong says.
One provision in the proposed law gives Animal Control the right to seize a dog after three infractions in 12 months. If that seems extreme, Hong favors the approach because, he says, an incessantly barking dog sends a message: "They need a new home."
Heilburg, however, points out that even cherished dogs can bark– and shouldn't be removed from a loving home because of it. "I'm lucky that I don't have a dog that barks a lot," he says, "but when she does bark, it could be for half an hour straight." Barking triggers for his dog, Iris, include "people and things that rustle in the night," he says. "It's a watchdog thing, I suppose."
If passed, the new ordinance will not apply to commercial dog kennels, livestock noises, or rurally zoned tracts of five acres or more. It will also be much simpler than other Virginia counties' laws. Barking ordinances in Spotsylvania, Stafford, and Prince William Counties require time-consuming investigations, according to the "executive summary" accompanying the draft ordinance. Those counties require complaints from two separate households plus a investigative visit from an animal control officer– and a warning to the owner.
If Albemarle's ordinance proposes a simpler and more direct solution, some people have questioned making a legal issue of a situation that might better be resolved through mediation or neighborly negotiation.
"I don't know why we've lost our ability to peacefully coexist," says Martin. "We should be able to iron this out without the help of a magistrate."
Will the loud barking coming from the yard next door translate into loud barking in the courtroom? The public hearing takes place June 11. The animal noise ordinance will be the last of four items on the agenda of the meeting that begins at 6pm in Lane Auditorium on the second floor of the County Office Building.