In a heated three-hour session that included pleas from opposite extremes during the public-comment period and one person getting thrown out of the chambers, the Buncombe County Board of Commissions voted 4-3, to approve changes to the county’s animal control ordinance. Due to the split, party-line vote, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed, they must take up the issue at a subsequent meeting.
The revised ordinance extends the minimum length of tethers for animals, adds rules for providing adequate living space for equines and redefines “animal neglect.” But the new rules were immediately under fire from both those who thought it went to far and those who thought it didn’t go far enough — especially when it came to changes to the tethering regulations.
The old ordinance had required a minimum length of 10 feet for tethers, and the revision increased it to 15 feet.
But Patrick Erwin of Chain Free Asheville — a local group that successfully lobbied City Council to ban tethering in the city limits a few years ago — said, “The county needs to have an ordinance banning the unattended tethering of dogs for the benefit of the community and the humane treatment of animals.”
Erwin noted, “The way I understand the ordinance, if the dog is not ‘neglected,’ he can be on a chain for his entire life. … The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that the continuous confinement of dogs by a tether is inhumane. I didn’t recall that ‘inhumane’ is included in the [ordinance’s] definition of neglect.”
Denise Bitz, founder and president of Asheville-based nonprofit Brother Wolf, said, “We are a major contributor to animal welfare in Buncombe County, and we feel very strongly that we should have been involved in informing these proposed amendments to the animal control ordinance.”
Neither she nor her group were ever informed “or invited to participate in the process,” Bitz said. “Extending the [tether] length from 10 to 15 feet does not help the issue of dogs who spend their life on chains. Social isolation, exposure to the elements, risks of being attack — a tethered dog is completely vulnerable. On behalf of Brother Wolf … I’m asking commissioners removing that specific language regarding tethering, and allow for a more transparent process.”
Others agreed that the amendments needed to be tabled — but for different reasons.
“I have dogs, and I keep them tethered,,” said Flat Creek resident Gary Cox. “I take care of [them]. These pictures you see [Chain Free representatives showing you], those aren’t hunters’ dogs. That’s just neglect.”
Cox emphasized that the ordinance changes are focused on neglect problems in the county and is “not a tethering bill. All I’ve heard in [public] comment is ‘don’t tether.’ We run our dogs every day. We feed them, we hunt them four or five nights a week. These dogs are being cared for, taken to the vet — and that’s all I got to say.”
“The tethering debate I also believe needs to be tabled,” said Joe Allen. “I belong to three different coon-hunting clubs, … and to my knowledge nobody was notified about this upcoming ordinance about increasing the leash on these dogs. Animal neglect is not just a dog that’s tied. Tethering is an emotional issue for a lot of people. They see bad in it, when it’s not. I hunt my dogs, they’re well taken care of, but they’re tethered. I believe more people need to have input into it other than certain welfare advocates.”
Commissioner Miranda Debruhl, in her first full meeting since being elected in November, said, “More than anything, I want everyone to understand that I think this [amended ordinance] is the absolute right idea, but we have to be sure we have the proper execution. We need to be sure we’re very clear about what the expectations are.”
“Hunters love their animals,” said Commissioner Mike Fryar. “And I would say 90 percent of people who hunt tether their animals. Anyone who mistreats an animal — [that’s] the person … you need to go after.”
But the discussion was interrupted by an outburst from a man who stood up and yelled, “I have a question: How can you think it’s humane to hunt?”
As Buncombe deputies moved toward the man, Commissioner Fryar ordered him removed. But the man stormed out of the chambers of his own accord.
After the commotion, Commissioner Brownie Newman resumed the debate, saying, “I don’t want to just postpone [the amendment] to postpone it. Some of these issues there’s not going to be consensus on. … The abuse and neglect of animals is what we really want to focus on. I want to see those efforts move ahead.”
Debruhl remained concerned about grandfathering current animal-housing structures that wouldn’t meet the new requirements, and she questioned gray areas in the wording.
“We have the square footage requirements, but the next sentence says that the animal must be able to stand up, turn around and lie down simultaneously,” she said. “So if the animal can do these activities, what supersedes the other? If the animal can do all these things, is the square footage not required?”
Commissioner Joe Belcher sided with Debruhl, questioning some apparent ambiguity of language: “’Social interaction’ is an extremely broad term. ‘Adequate exercise’ is an extremely broad term. So those are two things that are very broad. [But] 10 to 15 feet is not subjective, it’s enforceable.”
Commissioner Holly Jones said commissioners shouldn’t micromanage animal-control officers’ work in enforcing the rules. “I don’t see either [social interaction or adequate exercise] being resolved outside of the training of animal-control officers. It would be just micromanaging. I don’t see a resolution that would be better than very strong training.”
“What animal control does all the time is a judgment call,” said Commissioner Ellen Frost. “I feel confident with this language and relying on animal control to educate people. They work with people through these issues.”
After an hour of debate, however, commissioners had not come to an agreement.
County Attorney Robert Deutsch reminded them that ordinance changes brought forward for the first time require a unanimous vote to be approved at that meeting. If the vote’s not unanimous, the ordinance must undergo a second reading and be voted on again within 100 days, although traditionally commissioners take up such issues at their next regular meeting.
Having reached a standstill, commissioners voted 4-3 to approve the ordinance changes. Belcher, Fryar and Debruhl opposed. The amended ordinance, therefore, will most likely be on commissioners’ next meeting agenda. The second vote does not need to be unanimous, said Deutsch.
IN OTHER BUSINESS
- Commissioners approved 7-0 a budget amendment that will provide funding to the Department of Health and Human Services for hiring 23 additional staff for the added workload related to the implementation of NC FAST, a new system used to determine eligibility for public assistance programs. The state requires implementation of the system for complying with the Affordable Care Act, which itself requires centralized access points for applying for benefits and the ability to communicate with the federal benefits marketplace. The 23 new positions will cost $356,364 during the remainder of the fiscal year (through June 30).
- The Board also approved 7-0 three rezoning requests. The first, off Lytle Cove Road, changes the zoning from R-2 Residential District to a Low Density Residential District. The second, off Interstate26, changes the zoning from Commercial District to R-3 Residential District. The final, located on Franklin Road, changes the zoning from Commercial District to R-3 Residential District.
- The Board also made three board appointments: Donald Haynes to the Woodfin Water District Board by a 7-0 vote, Matthew Burrill to the Regional Airport Authority by a 4-3 vote, and Mark DeVerges to the County Board of Adjustment by a 6-1 vote.
The next meeting of the board will take place on Tuesday, Jan. 20 at 8:30 a.m. on the First Floor Conference Room. After regular business, the board will consider capital planning items. County offices will be closed the previous day, Jan. 19, for the Martin Luther King Holiday.