WINDHAM — Town councilors Tuesday debated exactly how long a dog must bark to be considered a nuisance, as well as the definitions of intermittent and constant barking.
The discussion was part of an ongoing conversation about the town’s animal control ordinance.
The issue was brought to the council March 5, when councilors discussed nuisance dogs and recent complaints about barking in town.
Police Chief Kevin Schofield said then that he and Animal Control Officer Jackie Frye would work to improve the language and definitions of the current ordinance in order to make it more consistent and clear.
Attorney Kevin Haskins of Preti Flaherty, which represents the town, said previously that municipalities can be “more stringent” about animal nuisances than state law. However, Schofield said at the April 16 council meeting that this is not, in fact, the case.
The draft proposes changes to sections regarding licensing, dogs at large, nuisance dogs, outdoor living standards and violations and penalties.
Some councilors wondered if the police could seize a dog, but Schofield said that this can only be done in specific circumstances.
“The only way we can seize dogs are through ex parte orders, meaning the physical health and welfare of the animal is in jeopardy, it’s been deemed a dangerous animal by the court, or a direct order from a judge for someone essentially being in contempt of court or a search warrant for investigating a crime and the dog was actually evidence of a crime. The police need a court order,” he said.
The legal process can delay action and prolong the process.
“If a dog’s outside barking, every night, during the day, it’s going to go months before anything can really be done because it’s got to come from a judge?” Councilor Bob Muir asked.
“If it comes to it, actually the enforcement piece through the court system, yes,” Schofield replied.
He continued, “People are entitled to a due process of law and rights. It’s a very long, slow, arduous and, in my professional experience, frustrating process.”
The councilors also discussed fines for those who violate the ordinance regarding off-premises control and resulting impoundment.
In the proposed changes, a first violation would result in a fine of $50 to $250, while a second violation would earn a fine of $100 to $500. Councilor Donna Chapman proposed setting single rates of $250 for the first violation and $500 for the second, which other councilors seemed to agree with.
Chapman also proposed a fine of $1,000 per offense for animals creating a nuisance by noise. The proposed changes set that fine at $100.
“I think you need to put a fine in here that sends a message and hopefully people follow the rules. The fine needs to be something that matters. If not, it’s never going to make a difference,” Chapman said.
Councilor Jarrod Maxfield disagreed, wanting to ensure that the council is “not unduly penalizing someone who screws up, they’re not going to do it again.”
Maxfield also was concerned about some definitions in the nuisance dog section.
The proposed section says “Any animal which, by prolonged barking, howling, or the making of other sounds common to its species, causes undue annoyance to individuals residing in the neighborhood shall be deemed to constitute a nuisance.”
“What is prolonged barking mean? How do we define undue annoyance? It’s a very subjective term,” he said.
“We’ve got to try to get rid of the subjectiveness to whatever level we can,” Councilor Dave Nadeau said.
Councilors also worried about how “constant” and “intermittent” barking would be interpreted and what would constitute each.
Schofield recommended setting a time limit to determine both.
He will return with another draft to receive the council’s comments, although he said that the town does not have the power to impact the court process through ordinance.
“Some of the issues you’re bringing up are being addressed, it’s just the timeliness of it that is the challenge,” he said.
Jane Vaughan can be reached at 780-9103 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.