New leash law has some residents barking mad

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(File photo)

For city residents, keeping a dog on a leash is commonplace. But in the county, where backyards are more spacious, some have come to expect to see animals running around untethered. Now thanks to a new Albemarle County’ ordinance, allowing a dog to run freely on another’s property is a Class 4 Misdemeanor, and some dog owners are less than pleased about the new leash law.

The original law regarding leashes prohibited dogs from running at large in the county’s more urban areas, but Albemarle County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Ann Mallek pushed for an amendment to include areas zoned as rural. Under the original ordinance, an animal control officer could legally do nothing in the case of a dog running at large unless it was exhibiting signs of aggression or rabies.

Elected officials said people from rural areas began to complain that they couldn’t check their mail, go for a jog or walk their kids to the bus stop without feeling threatened, or at least annoyed, by a neighbor’s dog on their property.

But the new ordinance, which prohibits dogs from running at large in all areas of the county, will allow an officer to impound a dog and return it to its owner, with the penalty of a Class 4 Misdemeanor and fee of up to $250.

The Board of Supervisors voted 5-1 in favor of the ordinance on April 11, and according to county police spokesman Sergeant Darrel Byers, the department allowed a grace period of about six weeks and began enforcing the law at the beginning of this month.

James Starr, a county resident who proudly owns an old basset beagle mix and five acres of land, spoke at the Board of Supervisors meeting last Wednesday and asked the Board to consider revising the ordinance.

“I agree that there are nuisance dogs and they should be addressed,” said Starr. “I do not believe there are enough nuisance dogs to warrant a law that restricts the rights of the rest of dog owners who are responsible.”

His own dog has a tendency to take off after rabbits, he said, and though he owns a large parcel of land where his dog can run without a leash, pets have no concept of property lines and often end up in neighboring yards.

“For me, to see a beagle chase a rabbit is hard to explain,” he said. “It’s euphoric for a dog.” He told the Board that, despite having been a lifelong dog owner, the ordinance would make him hesitant to adopt in the future if it meant the dog would never experience the freedom of running off a leash.

“I think there are some misconceptions that relate to the ordinance,” said Byers. He said officers get a fair number of calls about dog bites, and residents who feel threatened would benefit directly from stricter regulations.

Starr suggested that the law be enforced based on complaints, and a dog only be restricted to a leash after a complaint was filed about it. He said he believes such conflict should be worked out between neighbors, and that he personally has successfully rectified a potentially dangerous situation by simply talking with a neighbor.

But Supervisor Chris Dumler said the ordinance is intended to provide an option for those whose neighbors are unable or unwilling to compromise.

“We want to give people who feel threatened a legal mechanism by which to alleviate that threat,” he said.

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