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PRINCE EDWARD – Annoyed by those barking neighborhood dogs?

County supervisors could weigh a possible county-level solution.

A Rice area couple raised the issue of annoying barking dogs in a written request to the board in June and again at the board's August meeting; a board committee was asked to weigh the matter.

“There are a number of jurisdictions that have no such ordinance,” County Attorney James R. Ennis followed up in a report to the board. “Of jurisdictions that do have ordinance, I have reviewed Henrico, Bedford, Gloucester, Powhatan, Fairfax, Fauquier, Accomack, Lancaster and Albemarle and I will tell the board that they are almost all different with respect to limitations that…are contained in these ordinances.”

Some, he cited, are restrictive as to size of lot or acreage.

Most have a distance requirement for enforceability-whether it's 50 feet from the animal that is offending, 100 feet, and some stretching to 300 feet.

Some have time requirements where, in the case of a dog, the animal has to bark once a minute for ten minutes to be considered a violation.

Sometimes there are limitations on the hours that the ordinance applies. (The most frequent he listed, was 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.).

Most are citizen complaint-initiated ordinances.

Some require that there be at least one warning in writing from a law enforcement officer or animal control.

“So they pretty much run the gamut as far as the type of ordinance and the conditions that are contained…so they pretty much have to be tailor-made,” Ennis said.

He added, “I will tell you that of the other jurisdictions that I looked at, I'm not sure that most…can pass constitutional scrutiny in Virginia because of the language that's used. The more adjectives that you include in an ordinance like this, the more likely it is to be declared overly broad and vague. So the crafting of the ordinance needs to be done carefully. It needs to be as plain as possible with as little left to the imagination as far as interpretation is concerned in order to have an enforceable ordinance that can withstand scrutiny by an appellate court.”

Ennis said he can certainly craft the ordinance, but added that it would be the board's decision as far as content and what, if any, conditions they wanted to place on it. He suggested the board consider a committee to review some of the language in other ordinances, discuss it and come back to the board with a recommendation on content of the ordinance-if there should be an ordinance at all. They could draft, he added, on the conditions the board thinks are appropriate.

The committee will include Farmville District (701) Supervisor Jim Wilck (chair), Lockett District Supervisor Robert “Bobby” Jones, and Prospect Supervisor Howard “Pete” Campbell.

Issue Raised

“…I think the essential questions are these,” a Rice area resident told the board during the public comment portion of the meeting, “Where do the neighbor's rights end and ours begin? And why can't the existing ordinance that we have be enforced?”

She reflected on the board's minutes from June of 2008 and their discussion on handling barking dog complaints.

(While the board removed a portion that would have pertained to animals, one supervisor, according to the minutes, “…Asked if the animal portion of the ordinance is removed, and if there is excessive barking from dogs that may be chained outside, could the citizens call the county to report it. Mr. Ennis said the citizens should call in such an event. Sheriff Harris said his office gets calls often that dogs are barking excessively, for instance, at 2 a.m. He said the reports are taken and forwarded to the Animal Control officers.”

It was reported in The Herald's story from that 2008 meeting that: “Those who have problems with animal noise, Ennis suggested, should call because the board needs to know if it is a significant enough problem that it requires legislative intervention by the board and an amendment of the noise ordinance.”)

The speaker offered, “…We feel we have a personal right to enjoy our property and, at present, we're not able to do that. And we would like our personal right to be protected and we respectfully ask that you make that happen.”

Added her husband, “This is about noise and responsible ownership of pets and respect and consideration of neighbors as responsible members of our community.”

The board waded into the issue in June and discussed a letter from the couple.

“…Over the past few years we have suffered interruptions of normal life undertakings by neighboring dogs who bark at any activity in our yard and at other environmental stimuli,” they wrote. “Not only does the barking inhibit our outside activities, but the noise is often audible inside our home, waking us and our house guests from sleep in the early morning hours or impeding study and online course work. We have documented nearly 50 instances of sustained barking of over 20 minutes and over 100 total events over the past three years. We have lacked the energy to document all experiences.”

More Discussion

Ennis, noting the County's existing noise ordinance, reflected there was some discussion about animals and “there was some reluctance to include a provision that makes barking, yelping, braying, meowing, squawking a per se violation of the noise ordinance. When you get into terms like unreasonably loud or disturbing, that is where the constitutional scrutiny has fallen and that those statutes (that) contain that language have pretty much uniformly been held to be overly broad and vague and unenforceable.”

The attorney noted that he has seen it based on zoning where the application of the ordinance is restricted to residentially zoned areas. However, he added, it depends on just how fine a point their zoning law is. He added that he didn't know that their zoning is honed to quite that fine of point where they could limit it.

“I think you could use any reasonable standard,” Ennis said. “If you wanted to use population density per square mile or if you wanted to use lot size or acreage…”

In response to a specific question, he also said he didn't see why they couldn't use platted subdivisions as well.

Are Animals Property?

Leigh District Supervisor Don Gantt pressed likened the stereo to that of pets; both, he offered, are property.

“…It looks to me like that if we send a law enforcement officer out there and he deems that this property…”

Ennis would caution that it can't be based on an individual law enforcement officer's opinion.

“It's the same with the stereo,” Gantt said. “When he goes out there, what does he use to go tell that kid, turn the stereo down or take a ride with me.”

Ennis noted, “You either use the level of the noise and have a meter that measures it and has to be calibrated by the decibels…at a certain distance from it. Usually, it is from the curb if you're in an urban area or a property line, but it cannot be based on an individual's interpretation. When they talk about limitations of distance in these, if you can hear it and you are a hundred feet from the animal, that is a per se violation no matter how loud it is.”