Owners of dogs who make “unreasonable noise” could soon find themselves liable for a fine.
On Monday, the Montezuma County Board of Commissioners approved amending an existing state statute that deals with dangerous, violent dogs to also include those that disturb neighbors with habitual barking.
Commissioners Steve Chappell and Gerald Koppenhafer voted in favor of the measure, with Larrie Rule absent.
Approximately 30 residents attended the open hearing, with nearly all voicing an opinion on the subject.
Sheriff Dennis Spruell said his department receives several calls per week about disruptive dogs, but until now his deputies have been powerless to act because there was no enforceable ordinance on the books.
County Attorney Bob Slough said that although people have a constitutional right to free speech, that freedom is tempered by statutes prohibiting disorderly conduct. He said the same reasoning should apply to dogs.
According to the new amendment, if a nearby dog is stubbornly noisy to the point of infringing upon “peace and tranquility,” county residents can file a complaint with the sheriff's office. If unwilling to train the problematic canine, the owner would be charged with a Class 2 petty offense. The accused party would then have the option to either pay a fine — $50 for the first violation, $100 for the second — or take the matter before a judge, where they could try to justify the noise as reasonable given the specific scenario.
A deputy who witnessed the offending dog's unruly behavior could be called to testify in court.
“Ultimately (the ruling would) depend on the facts of time and circumstance,” Slough said. “A dog barking out in the forest is not the same as a dog barking in a subdivision.”
Crowd feedback was mixed, but a slight majority seemed to favor the amendment.
Craig Watson told the commissioners that incessant barking had interrupted his sleep patterns to the point of being dangerous. Previous attempts to rectify the situation, including notes left on the neighbor's kennel and visits by sheriff's deputies, were unheeded by the neighbor, he said.
Eventually several months of accumulated fatigue took its toll. Watson said he fell asleep while driving one night in October, waking only when he swerved into a ditch and a fence post shattered his truck's side mirror.
“It's a form of torture. Torture by sleep deprivation screws up your life horribly,” he said. “I could have killed myself or somebody else driving on the road that night.”
Susan House, who works from home, said the racket near her home was so bothersome it gave her unsettling thoughts.
“It turns a rational person into an irrational person,” she said. “I've thought about poisoning or shooting the (barking) dogs in their yard. It turns every nerve upside down.”
Like Watson, House said polite requests to her neighbors to take the dogs inside were ignored.
Steve Davis transcended his natural dislike for rules and regulations to support the measure because he felt “a decent night's sleep” was a matter of health and welfare for the “productive people” of Montezuma County.
Some dissenters expressed concern over the ambiguity of terms, specifically how to measure “unreasonable noise” and what it means to have “control” over a dog. Others were worried about a slippery slope where, in the future, livestock animals and certified working dogs — which are currently exempt from charges — would be penalized.
Rusty Hamilton, for example, wanted to ensure his hounds wouldn't be taken away for baying at coyotes — precisely what they are trained to do.
A few argued the amendment was a bureaucratic overreach that encouraged residents to rely on a “nanny government” versus resolving quarrels with their neighbors directly.
The commissioners ultimately sided with those like former commissioner candidate Greg Kemp, who felt an ordinance was necessary to punish the small minority of dog owners who show “blatant disrespect for their neighbors”.
“Some people cannot be counted on to be considerate,” Kemp said to the commissioners. “You've had plenty of justification for passing this ordinance.”
Elvis Lewis agreed, despite his ambivalence toward red tape.
“We need a remedy, a process, whereby reasonable people consider the facts,” he said, adding that the ordinance could be a “vehicle or tool” toward that end.
While approving the amendment, the commissioners also tweaked the wording of one clause to give deputies greater discretion over impounding. Under the existing language, they would have been compelled — if the ordinance was followed strictly — to impound a dog merely for barking, even if it didn't pose a safety risk. Spruell decried this affront to “common sense”, and the commissioners were convinced to make the change.
Spruell added that the county will not incur any further expenses because the sheriff's department is not hiring extra deputies to monitor dog noise.