Buncombe County Commission

“What we decide here today will serve as a model and inspiration to the rest of the country.”

After passionate public comment and a last-minute compromise, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to revamp the county’s animal ordinance last week, requiring the owners of unaltered dogs and cats to buy a one-time, $100 permit.

About 7,000 animals are killed at the county’s shelter each year; the new rule aims to reduce that figure.

The matter was one of several important issues that came before the board on Dec. 2 — the last scheduled meeting of the year.

The commissioners also dramatically slashed the minimum investment required for manufacturers to qualify for economic-incentive grants. And in two unrelated real-estate deals, they decided to spend $2.15 million to buy a building to house county offices, and to put the once-controversial Union Transfer Building on the market.

“What valid reason remains?”

Most of the crowd that packed the commissioners’ chambers had come to show support for the proposed permit.

Several local nonprofits help people pay for spaying and neutering their pets, noted Eileen Bouressa, executive director of the Animal Compassion Network, a nonprofit animal-rescue organization.

“What valid reason remains?” asked Bouressa, referring to pet owners who don’t get their animals altered. “If affecting them financially is the only way to stop the senseless killing, then it becomes our burden to do so. All eyes are on Buncombe County today: We are in a unique position to set a precedent that will affect not only our county, but all of Western North Carolina. And what we decide here today will serve as a model and inspiration to the rest of the country.

“In the words of Gandhi, the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” she continued, urging, “Today, make us great.”

The audience erupted in applause.

The permit was proposed by Shelly Moore (executive director of the nonprofit Asheville Humane Society) and Ellen Frost (chairwoman of the Mimi Paige Foundation, a local nonprofit that promotes responsible animal ownership). The Humane Society has a contract with Buncombe County and the city of Asheville to run the local animal shelter. AHS also provides animal-control services for the county.

But not everyone who spoke during the public-comment period supported the permit.

Town Mountain Road resident Wesson J. Ritchie — who noted that he belongs to both the Asheville Rifle and Pistol Club and the Asheville Kennel Club — called on the commissioners to reject the proposal, arguing that the nonprofits providing discount spaying and neutering will be swamped with requests.

“The shelter will fill up with dogs and cats, and the landfill will fill up with dead dogs and cats,” predicted Ritchie. Instead, he said, the county should simply pay for spaying and neutering pets.

And Marta Stoneman, immediate past president of the Asheville Kennel Club, said she and the club support the proposal’s intent but disagree with the approach. Responsible pet owners, she argued, are the ones most likely to pay the fee, even though they’re not responsible for the problem.

Stoneman also said show dogs (which must be anatomically “intact” to enter competitions) should be exempted from the proposed rules to avoid penalizing people for their hobby.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey asked why show dogs couldn’t be exempted. Frost replied that everyone would claim their dog was a show dog.

And as the meeting unfolded, it became clear that enforcement was a major sticking point. The proposal envisioned animal-control officers enforcing the permit requirement only if they were also investigating a complaint about cruelty to an animal or about an unleashed or vicious dog — but those stipulations weren’t spelled out in the draft ordinance.

Ramsey asked why the enforcement policy couldn’t be written into the ordinance.

Frost, however, worried that this might take the teeth out of the ordinance.

Yet another stumbling block arose when Stoneman called out from the audience that the proposal did not exempt hunting dogs.

“Whoa!” cried Commissioner Bill Stanley.

Moore noted that hunting dogs are exempt from the newly passed leash law but not from the proposed permit requirement.

And Commissioner Patsy Keever observed that almost anyone who keeps animals for sport could afford a $100 permit.

After more discussion, County Attorney Joe Connolly offered to huddle with Moore, Frost and Stoneman to come up with language they could all agree on. They left the meeting, returning later with a compromise that advocates on both sides said they could accept: The complaint-based enforcement policy would be written into the ordinance, but there would be no exemptions for “performance” dogs or hunting dogs.

After that, the commissioners unanimously approved the changes. The new rules will take effect Feb. 1 with a 60-day grace period, during which pet owners will be issued warning citations for not having a permit. After April 1, offenders will be fined $100 — though the penalty will be waived if the cat or dog is altered within 30 days.

Depending on the animal and its gender, the Humane Alliance charges between $35 and $55 to spay or neuter a cat or dog. A separate permit will be required for each unaltered animal in the same household.

After the meeting, Frost told Xpress she was worried that the compromise might make the ordinance less effective in reducing the number of euthanized animals.

Stoneman, however, felt the retooled ordinance would do a better job of targeting the problem owners.

Asked whether she planned to get permits for her own dogs (Welsh springer spaniels), Stoneman proved evasive. “I have not decided,” she said with a smile.

Short and sweet

In other business, the commissioners swiftly and unanimously took the following actions:

• lowered the minimum investment threshold (from $1.5 million to $250,000, with at least two jobs created) at which manufacturing businesses become eligible for economic-incentive grants;

• decided to buy the Interchange Building (59 Woodfin Place in Asheville) from the Haywood Redevelopment Corporation for $2.15 million to house county offices now using leased space;

• offer for sale (asking price: $1.63 million) the Union Transfer and Storage Building at 123 S. Lexington Ave. in Asheville. The county had intended to convert the building into a satellite jail, but downtown business owners and the city of Asheville protested;

• agreed to create a Land Conservation Advisory Board, to be appointed Jan. 6;

• named Commissioner Bill Stanley as Board of Commissioners vice chairman; and

• recognized the 75th birthday of the Buncombe County Courthouse.

Up in the air

The commissioners heard requests but took no action on a pair of environmental matters.

Eastern North Carolina resident Jennifer Alligood — supported at the meeting by two local folks from the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project — asked the commissioners to oppose the U.S. Navy’s plans to build a landing field next to the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Washington County, N.C., which will probably disrupt the thousands of migratory birds that winter there. Commissioner Keever was ready to lend her support, but Chairman Ramsey wanted time to review the information presented at the meeting.

The Canary Coalition, meanwhile, asked the commissioners to adopt a resolution urging the state attorney general to file a lawsuit challenging the legality of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “routine maintenance” ruling.

The EPA, said coalition representative Avram Friedman, has finalized a rule change that redefines “routine maintenance” in the Clean Air Act’s New Source Review provision. According to the Canary Coalition, the action will allow thousands of polluting factories, refineries and power plants across the country to be grandfathered, resulting in higher levels of smokestack emissions.

But Nancy Thompson of Progress Energy urged the commissioners not to support the coalition’s request, which she said would be detrimental and burdensome to business interests. And in a letter to the commissioners, Thompson noted that both the local Manufacturers’ Executive Association and AdvantageWest (a regional economic-development agency) oppose any such resolution.

After a seven-minute closed session to discuss an economic-development matter, the commissioners adjourned for the year. The board’s next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 6, 2004.

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