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July 12, 2011

Progressive Dog Law Takes Effect in Ocala

County gives bad dogs a second bite

OCALA STAR BANNER
By Bill Thompson
Staff writer
Published: Tuesday, July 5, 2011 at 5:22 p.m.

The Marion County Commission on Tuesday took some of the bite out of its controversial dangerous-dog law, acting after a brief low-key public debate that lacked the highly emotional debate that accompanied past discussions of the ordinance.

The board unanimously approved changes to the law that loosen some of the bounds on dogs that could be considered threats to public safety. Commissioners did so in response to changes in state laws, past court decisions and ongoing litigation.

Commissioners also added a new section to the animal control ordinance in an effort to bring some stability to the stray cat population, as well as some savings to taxpayers.




The board has been fielding complaints about the law almost since its last overhaul in March 2010.

One of the biggest changes approved on Tuesday involved the revised definition of what makes a dog dangerous.

Last year the board, despite recommendations not to do so, instituted a "one kill" rule that said canines could be declared dangerous if they kill another domestic animal or livestock once.

The law was challenged in court as unconstitutional in April 2010. This past March, County Attorney Guy Minter conceded in a court filing related to that case that Marion's ordinance conflicted with the dangerous-dog definition in state law and was therefore "invalid."

Under the newly approved language, dogs can be labeled dangerous if they aggressively bite, attack, endanger or inflict severe injury on a person, or if they on more than one occasion severely injure or kill another domestic animal while off its owner's property.

The commission on Tuesday also supported a revision that allows dog owners to keep their pets at home until dangerous-dog investigations are completed, provided that animal control officers concur the animals can be securely confined.

Or in lieu of that, the county will now permit owners to visit their dogs when held in quarantine prior to the final decision.

Fred Kray, a Gainesville lawyer who has battled the board over the ordinance, told the commission that was critical for people who might otherwise just leave their dogs to be euthanized.

The board also authorized the creation of a new Dog Classification Board.

Until now, the Code Enforcement Board has doubled in that capacity — a situation that invited protests from professional dog trainers and other critics of the ordinance. Critics said the Code Enforcement Board did not have an understanding of animal behavior.

The County Commission still must develop the criteria for the new classification board, but commissioners pledged to include veterinarians, animal trainers and other professionals in the mix of members.

Even dogs declared dangerous got a break from the commission.

One provision that mandated owners of such canines post warning signs on their property was tweaked. The wording on the sign was changed from "Warning: Dangerous Dog" to "Warning: Bad Dog."

Kray, who has represented dog owners around the state, including three Marion County residents, said some parts could be reworked, but overall he was impressed by the changes.

"This is the best dangerous-dog law that I've seen in the state of Florida," said Kray in urging its adoption.

Cats, however, were not overlooked on Tuesday.

The other significant feature of the new law was the incorporation of the Trap, Neuter and Release (or TNR) program for domestic feral cats.

The initiative is designed to reduce the population of cat "colonies" that are fed and maintained by sympathetic residents.

County officials are finalizing a deal with a nonprofit group called Sheltering Hands to manage the effort.

Under the program, volunteers — with the landowner's permission — will trap the cats, take them for spaying or neutering by a local veterinarian and return them to the area of their colony.

Advocates argued the cats will remain close to the area and their ranks will be thinned by natural attrition rather than euthanasia, as now occurs.

Jill Lancon, director of the county's Animal Services Department, said after the meeting that the county euthanized about 1,800 feral cats last year.

Proponents told the board the program will spare the cats' lives as well the taxpayers' wallets, since Sheltering Hands will not rely on public funding.

The initiative, they said, was backed by national groups such as the U.S. Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Locally, the Marion County Veterinary Health Association also supported the plan.

One critic, Patricia Reed of Summerfield, said the TNR program would not end the abandonment of domestic cats to the wild, nor relieve the county of liability for any of the cats' misdeeds.

Supporters, on the other hand, argued it would effectively contain population growth for unwanted animals without simply killing them.

"It just flies in the face of all reason that we should be against trapping and neutering," said Martha Williamson of Ocala.

"Those cats are going to be around, and they're going to continue to multiply."

One issue the board debated was whom to notify about Sheltering Hands' activities. Commissioners ultimately settled on informing landowners with property contiguous to the keeper of the colony.

The board also decreed that if neighbors objected, the group would have to find a new location.

In other action on Tuesday, the County Commission agreed to consider a plan to have its regulations evaluated by an independent advisory board.

Ocala businessman Chuck Pardee proposed the creation of a "Regulation Review Board" to review proposed and perhaps existing regulations.

Pardee, a long-time conservative community activist, said the panel's mission would be to ferret out obsolete or burdensome rules for repeal, or make recommendations on proposed laws in order to streamline government operations.

In addition, the advisers could suggest the County Commission's approach to new regulations imposed by federal or state agencies.

Pardee added that the committee would be "fairly small" and comprised of "very objective" people who would function as any of the commission's other advisory boards.

Minter, the county attorney, cautioned the board against moving too quickly.

He expressed concerns about having people "regulate the regulators," saying that adding a layer of oversight might actually bog down county staff and reduce the efficiency of some processes.

Commissioners said they understood but still welcomed Pardee's suggestion.

"I think it's a good idea," Chairman Stan McClain said. "There's too much regulation. No one's opposed to regulation. I think it's the layers of regulation that we have. You've got regulation at the federal level, at the state level, the local level, and pretty soon you end up where things are just bound up and you can't move forward."

Commissioner Carl Zalak volunteered to work with Pardee and Minter to develop a format for the advisory board's function. That report is expected within the next two months.

County commissioners also approved an $11.9 million contract for the construction of the Southwest 42nd Street flyover project.

Commercial Industrial Corp. of Reddick prevailed over 11 other bidders.

The project entails building a four-lane divided highway for the 1.7 miles that will connect Southwest 27th Avenue near Trinity Catholic High School to State Road 200 near the Berkshire Oaks shopping center.

The city of Ocala and the Florida Department of Transportation also will reimburse Marion County for another $8.2 million in costs related to the project.

Once completed, the road will link SR 200 in the west to Maricamp Road, just east of Southeast 36th Avenue. It was unclear Tuesday when construction would start.

Contact Bill Thompson at 867-4117 or at bill.thompson@starbanner.com



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