by Carla Occaso
EAST MONTPELIER — Come February, East Montpelier residents will have a more detailed dog ordinance to adhere to than they have in the past, which could result in a $50 fine for first offense ‘running at large’ or impoundment at the owner’s expense unless townspeople petition against it.
It all started over a year ago with three bothersome dogs on Upper North Street, according to Selectman Carl Etnier during a telephone conversation over the holidays. Etnier received complaints from a social group living in that area concerning three Labradoodles that roamed around their neighborhood and frightened people on the road and on the trail system, according to Town Administrator Bruce Johnson. One of the dogs even bit someone once. The situation was recorded in selectboard meeting minutes dated Dec. 16, 2013 that state, “Sandy Conti (animal control officer) came to the selectboard to talk about some aggressive dogs owned by the Thornton/Kelly family on North Street. A townsperson was bitten by one of the dogs on a trail west of Upper North Street. Mr. Conti will serve the owners with a citation and a fine. These three dogs have been bothering people and other dogs on North Street and the trail system.” Apparently talking to the owners did not result in keeping the dogs from bothering people, so Etnier set about updating the existing rules.
Prohibited under the new ordinance includes: Dogs creating a nuisance such as “running at large” – not on a leash, defecating, and making noise such as barking, snarling, crying, etc. for an extended period of time. The remedy the town can take under the ordinance is to fine the owner and impound the dog at the owner’s expense. Violation fees may be levied beginning at $50 for the first offense, $100 for the second offense and $200 plus impoundment for the third offense. Subsequent offenses would be fined at $400.00. Working farm dogs and hunting dogs are exempt from the ordinance.
Johnson said the ordinance is for extreme circumstances and would not be used lightly. “The selectboard is not sending out the animal control officer to pick up every dog in town. The intent is not to all of a sudden throw the dogs of East Montpelier into a morass of legal trouble,” Johnson said.
Etnier said he was prompted to draft a more detailed and comprehensive ordinance than the one on file for several reasons, since he did not succeed in controlling the situation by talking directly to the dog’s owner on Upper North Street. Etnier agreed to answer a series of questions posed to him by The Bridge. It should be noted that the author lives at her childhood home in East Montpelier and owns a dog she adopted last month from Random Rescue in Williamstown.
Occaso: How did the dog ordinance come about?
Etnier: As we discussed on the phone, the dog ordinance dates back to 2003. I was not on the selectboard at the time, and I haven’t researched the history of it. We’ve merely updated the existing ordinance, which has not generated any complaints during the years I’ve been on the selectboard. The ordinance was also updated in 2010.
Occaso: Why do we need a new one? State law governs dealing with vicious dogs, licensing, etc. Isn’t that enough?
Etnier: The updating began after the selectboard heard multiple complaints about dogs whose behavior was creating unease in a neighborhood. Residents were not satisfied with the range of options available to the selectboard to respond to complaints about dogs that were behaving aggressively, even attacking other dogs. The selectboard agreed that a wider range of options for enforcement in these cases would be desirable.
The primary change in the ordinance update is expanding the range of situations in which the state’s “vicious dog” hearing process can be applied. The hearing process allows the selectboard to be creative in tailoring solutions that best fit the circumstances at hand, rather than simply issuing a ticket. Under the old ordinance, the hearing process can be applied if a dog bites someone off the owner’s premises and in limited other circumstances. With the update, the hearing process can also be applied in circumstances like a dog attacking other pets or behaving aggressively towards humans without actually biting them.
Occaso: What is a “potentially” vicious dog? (I read the ordinance and it sounds like almost any dog is a “potentially” vicious dog).
Etnier: The definition of a “potentially” vicious dog has been created so the town has a wider range of enforcement options than simply issuing a ticket when a dog threatens the safety of people or animals in a neighborhood in a way that doesn’t trigger the state’s “vicious dog” hearing process. In other words, it doesn’t bite a human off its owner’s premises.
Occaso: Who decides what a nuisance is? Is there a committee or panel?
Etnier: The animal control officer is the primary person to decide whether an animal is creating a nuisance. He is empowered to ticket the owner of a dog that is creating a nuisance.
Occaso: What specific signs must the dog exhibit to be deemed potentially vicious?
Etnier: See the language in the ordinance. And remember, this is a complaint-driven process. Plus, like a person who is innocent until proven guilty, no dog is “vicious” or “potentially vicious” without due process–in this case, a selectboard hearing with specific rules of procedure and rights and responsibilities for the complaintant and the dog owner.
Occaso: Who is going to pay for the town’s demanding a particular kind of tag with the name, etc. on it? If the town is mandating it, shouldn’t they pay for it?
Etnier: I don’t understand the question. The licensing procedure is part of state law. VLCT’s Big Book of Woof (p 8) explains it this way:
The establishment of licensing programs in Vermont and around the country in the 1940s and ’50s was instrumental in abating the proliferation of rabies by requiring all dogs of a certain age to be licensed and that their owners show proof of current vaccination as a prerequisite to licensing.
The fees for licensing pay for the license tag that each dog owner receives annually.
Occaso: If a dog goes missing, is lost, etc., should the owner fear impoundment and a fine rather than seek help recovering it?
Etnier: No. If the animal control officer sees a dog running at large, he’s likely to stop and try to find its home. Sandy Conti, the town’s animal control officer, tells the selectboard about his work, and from what he’s told us, he uses the easiest, least legalistic way of resolving dog issues. That’s in accordance with the selectboard’s wishes.
Occaso: Why is the first offense $50? Why not a warning or two first?
Etnier: I have never heard of our animal control officer issuing a ticket for a first offense, without a warning. The ordinance provides the option of doing so, but it’s completely the animal control officer’s call as to whether to issue a warning or a ticket.
Occaso: If the town takes someone to court because their dog got out or is barking…who pays the town lawyer fees?
Etnier: Tickets issued under this ordinance, if contested, are handled in traffic court. If the town asks a lawyer to help it, the town pays.
Occaso: If the select board orders the dog owner to take a dog training course of its choosing, who pays?
Etnier: The dog owner.
Occaso: What if a person can’t afford the fine or mandated requirements?
Etnier: I have seen various officers of the town work with residents and business owners on many issues. I’ve been impressed with the approach of working to create a solution that works for everyone.
To view the complete ordinance, go to: http://eastmontpeliervt.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/2014-EM-Dog-Control-Ordinance.pdf
If you want to disapprove the ordinance, it can be done by following the below instructions before Jan. 28:
From the East Montpeliervt.org website:
Town of East Montpelier citizens may petition for a town vote on the question of disapproving this ordinance. The petition must be signed by not less than 5 percent of the qualified voters of the Town of East Montpelier and submitted to the Town Clerk at the Municipal Building no later than 5 p.m. Jan. 28, 2015. Absent such a petition, the ordinance will take effect February 13, 2015.