Asheville City Council: Dogged pursuit

  • Family Care homes told to space out
  • No support for drug dogs in parks
  • City signs 911 agreement

Third time's a charm. After repeated visits to Asheville City Council, the group Chain Free Asheville succeeded in its goal to ban unattended dog tethering within city limits. At its Sept. 22 meeting, Council voted 5-2 to approve a new amendment to the city's animal control ordinance — but only after getting assurances that Chain Free Asheville will continue to pay for and build fences for people who can't afford them.

The new amendment bans tying up or chaining dogs in the city of Asheville except when a dog is on a hand-held leash or within view of its owner.

"We believe this law is reasonable," Chain Free founder Peggy Irwin told Council. "It will protect children. It will protect dogs. It will protect property values."

Chain chain chain: A new city ordinance forbids tying up dogs without human supervision. The move has been pushed by the group Chain Free Asheville. Photo by Jonathan Welch

The move had the support of the Asheville Humane Society. "This is an important step in making Asheville a more humane community for all," said Jennifer Brehlor, the society's director of operations.

At Council's request, Irwin had worked closely with Asheville's Assistant City Attorney Curt Euler to craft the amendment after Council had last considered a ban in May. Council had just passed a new animal-control ordinance a month prior but expressed reluctance to pull the trigger on a full tethering ban.

"I am not ready to say 'no unattended tethering,'" remarked Council member Brownie Newman at the time.

Council members still approached the issue with hesitation when it came around again. By prohibiting tying or chaining dogs for even brief periods of time or the use of T-runners, the ordinance still had a broad sweep, they noted with concern.

Euler explained that the 24/7 ban was the result of enforcement concerns — it would be too hard to know how long a dog had been on a chain.

But the lumping together of everyone who tethers a dog still tasted wrong to Newman. "I've not been persuaded by the idea that anytime someone has their dog chained up something terrible has happened," he said. Still, Newman would eventually support the ordinance, making a motion for approval.

Mayor Terry Bellamy also was hesitant. In the past she had aired a preference for allowing T-runners, and at this meeting stressed that the matter was a cultural issue that needs to be handled with care.

"This is a whole paradigm shift for people who have been chaining their dogs for years," she said. "This is a pretty huge transition from where we are."

For Irwin and a roomful of red-shirted supporters, the issue was not so muddled. Chained dogs, she said, are often aggressive, having had their behavior altered by being tied up.

"[Tethering is] visual evidence of irresponsible pet ownership and is often an indicator of drugs," she said.

Throw them a bone

But despite concerns that the ordinance is too draconian, steps taken by Chain Free Asheville to build fences for dog owners helped pave the way to approval, as did a planned educational effort and an 18-month preliminary warning period before any fines would be issued.

Chain Free Asheville currently has $30,000 to help people transition from tying up dogs to fencing them in. Even before the ordinance was finalized, the group had begun to build fences in the city at no cost to property owners.

The group will use its funds and volunteers to build a fence for anyone who can't afford to buy one for their dogs.

"We're not just waiting for a law to happen," Irwin said. "We are doing it. We are out there building fences."

While the ordinance goes into effect immediately, the enforcement and resulting $50 fine will not kick in until the beginning of 2011. During the 15 months until then, Animal Control and the Asheville Police Department will undertake an educational program to get the community up to speed on the ordinance and issue warnings to those who don't comply.

That last provision was a high priority for Bellamy. "There's going to be some push back from some community members when they find out what this ordinance means," she said. The mayor also wanted to know if there was a way to obligate Chain Free Asheville in the ordinance to continue building fences in the future. But Euler said it isn't possible to dictate that a nonprofit spend its money in accordance with the city's wishes.

Despite getting Bellamy and Newman on board, the ban still couldn't find favor with Council members Bill Russell or Carl Mumpower. While Mumpower objected on the grounds of personal freedom and the need to focus on drug activity in Asheville, Russell noted that some neighborhood bylaws don't allow the kind of fences being built by Chain Free Asheville.

The ordinance passed 5-2 with Mumpower and Russell voting no.

A little space please

In the north-central Asheville neighborhood where Lisa Lorr lives, there has been an increase in Family Care Homes, residences which serve as transitional housing for people with physical and mental disabilities, including some who are recovering from addiction. And while Lorr told Council that she understands the role such homes play, five of them in a four-block radius is a bit much for her neighborhood.

"I'm surrounded," she said. "It's a lot of traffic and a lot of turnover."

By state law, a city cannot discriminate against Family Care homes in residential districts. "It is one of our responsibilities as a city to ensure the availability of housing for the people who don't have the same advantages as others," said City Attorney Bob Oast.

Family Care homes usually set up in lower-cost neighborhoods, and their residents tend to have short stays.

Although state law allows for cities to mandate as much as a half-mile between homes, Asheville previously had no such requirement in place. In response to neighborhood concerns, Asheville city staff recommended that Council adopt minimum spacing of 600 feet. But residents, arguing that the city's more affordable neighborhoods were being overwhelmed with these homes, pushed for more distance.

"We don't have a problem with group homes," said resident Heath Moody. "Our problem is mainly saturation." Moody and his neighbors asked Council to increase the 600-foot distance, but Russell said he thought "the length of two football fields" was sufficient.

Council member Kelly Miller, who lives in the same neighborhood as Lorr and Moody, said that there was currently another home looking at the area, and she noted that Council's vote would stop another from moving in.

Council unanimously passed the modification to the Unified Development Ordinance requiring a 600-foot distance between Family Care Homes.

Something smells fishy

After passing an anti-tethering ordinance, Council was not yet done hearing about dogs. Despite the cool reception it had earned from the city's public-safety committee, Mumpower took time to pitch a proposal that would put drug-sniffing dogs in the city's public parks. Though he said he envisioned less-intimidating dogs than the German Shepherds used by the APD's K9 unit, he thought they would deter people from bringing drugs into parks.

"I want Asheville to be an unfriendly place to do drugs," said the Council member who once scanned a RatDog concert for pot smoking and rode along with a former police officer to solicit crack cocaine at a public housing project to show how easy it was to do.

Mumpower said he wanted police to be as free to search people in city parks as they are in city hall, and he said he disagreed with City Attorney Oast's opinion that such a step would be unconstitutional.

Council member Jan Davis, who chairs the public-safety committee, noted that APD Chief Bill Hogan shared Oast's concerns, worrying that Mumpower's proposal would conflict with Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure and could open the city up to lawsuits.

"The chief didn't seem to think it was something he could justify or take a chance with," Davis said. No action was taken on the matter.

In other news:

A week after Buncombe County Commissioners signed a formal city/county 911 agreement, Asheville City Council followed suit, formalizing a partnership it has been pursuing for years. The agreement means that the city and county share 911 emergency services. In fact, the two had already been sharing those services while the two governments were hammering out the details of the agreement. Council unanimously supported the move.

Brian Postelle can be contacted at 251-1333, ext. 153, or at bpostelle@mountainx.com.

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