Barking dogs spark dispute
For Mike and Patty LaRossa, purchasing a vacation home in the Fines Creek area of Clyde back in 2003 was a dream come true. Over the years, they've enjoyed getting away from their home in Sarasota, Florida, and spending long periods of time in the mountains.
"We came out here because of the peace and quiet and the view here is second to none," Mike said, pointing at the blue-tinted mountainscape from his porch.
But the couple is now attempting to sell their home because they say they can no longer stand the constant dog barking coming from a neighbor's property.
The barking problem didn't begin until 2010 when Judy Ferguson moved closer to their residence, bringing several dozen dogs with her.
"In the spring and summer when we're here we can't open our windows, and we can't sit out on our deck because we can't even talk to each other over the barking," Patty said.
Every little movement seems to make the dogs bark, and it isn't unusual for them to bark late into the night, if not all night long, the couple said.
"Now I'm being forced to sell my house because I can't enjoy it and don't want to bring my family out here," Mike said.
The couple put their house on the market last year and attracted three potential buyers. But they said the incessant barking nearby overshadowed any further interest in the house.
"The three people that came to look at it said, 'It's perfect, but I can't live here with these dogs barking,'" Patty LaRossa said.
They even tried to rent the house, but the rental company said they couldn't find tenants until the dog barking problem was solved.
There is no county ordinance that limits the number of pets a homeowner may have, but there is a county noise ordinance. Municipalities can make their own rules within city limits. For example, Canton's ordinance allows residents to own no more than three dogs.
When a barking complaint is filed, animal control officers first check on the animals to make sure they are being properly fed and cared for, said Jean Hazzard, director of Haywood County Animal Services. If they are not in violation of any animal laws, the complaint is turned over to the law enforcement agency in that jurisdiction to handle it as a noise ordinance violation.
According to the county noise ordinance it's against the law to keep "any dog or bird which, by causing frequent or long, continued barking or other noise, within any residential area in such a manner as to annoy or disturb the peace, quiet, and comfort of the residents of the area."
"We are trying to figure out if there is any reason they are barking because if they are just barking to bark, then the pet owner and law enforcement will have to handle that," Hazzard said.
During welfare checks, officers make sure the dogs are attached to a proper chain that swivels to prevent tangling, are provided with food water and a dog house and are in an environment free of debris. They also check to see if the animals appear healthy.
By law, dogs are not allowed to run loose and must be confined on the pet owner's property.
Animal control officers have made several trips to the Ferguson home to check on the welfare of the dogs, most recently in November. At last count in April, there were 49 dogs on the property, Hazzard said, adding Ferguson has never been found to have violated any animal welfare laws.
"They were in acceptable body condition. She was putting swivels on everything like she was supposed to and made sure they each had a house. A lot of people know how to keep it just above the line so they can't be seized," Hazzard said.
On Dec. 30, the LaRossas filed another barking complaint and a sergeant from the Haywood County Sheriff's Office visited Ferguson. According to the report, the sergeant saw about 30 hunting dogs tied up on the property when he arrived at Ferguson's home.
"It was very difficult to speak to Ms. Ferguson due to the loud and continuous barking, but she agreed to feed them and attempt to keep them quiet," according to the report. Ferguson told the sergeant the dogs belonged to her recently deceased husband and that her son uses them for hunting.
Animal control officers will again check on the welfare of the dogs to determine the reason for barking within the next week.
"There are multiple dogs and everything has been explained in writing to her about what she needs to do, what the ordinance is and what we will and will not accept," Hazzard said. "She's aware of how everything is supposed to be, so I'm not sure if this barking and carrying on now is all because of the manner of keeping."
If the well being of the dogs is not at stake, it's out of Hazzard's hands and is turned over to law enforcement.
"An animal, by law, is property and you can do with your property and handle your property the way you see fit as long as it's done within the law and animal welfare," Hazzard said. "We're not there to harass anybody on any calls we go on. It's strictly all about the animals."
After fielding past barking complaints at the home, Hazzard said she has suggested that Ferguson reduce the number of dogs to make it easier to care for them as well as decrease barking.
"My recommendation to her has been, 'Have a colony that you can love and enjoy and take care of,' because it's a lot to take care of that many dogs," Hazzard said.
Ferguson followed her advice and found new homes for some of the dogs in 2012, however the number has increased again, she said.
Heidi Warren, public information officer for the sheriff's office, said a deputy speaks with dog owners and the complainant when barking calls come in, but it's incumbent on the complainant to seek a criminal summons if they want to pursue the matter.
On Dec. 31, Mike LaRossa went to a Haywood County magistrate to secure the summons. By law, a mediator from Mountain Mediation Services will contact both parties to help them try and resolve the issue outside of court. If an agreement is not made, the two will appear in court.
Ferguson's attorney, Rusty McLean, said he has not seen the charges against his client, which as of Thursday had not been served.
"All I can say is people should be very careful about taking criminal warrants on another person," he said.
Mike LaRossa hopes the problem can be settled outside of court so the two parties can live happily.
"The only way to keep the dogs quiet is to get rid of some of the dogs. If there are 50 dogs there, if one dog barks they will all bark," he said.
If the dog barking ceased or even abated, the La Rossa's wouldn't think twice about keeping their home.
"I look at other mountain homes and I envy them because there's no dogs barking around them," Mike said.
A widespread problem
Nuisance barking is a widespread problem across the county, according to several comments on the Mountaineer Facebook page.
Cindy Burnette said barking dogs sometimes keep her awake in the early morning hours, so she turns on a fan to drown out the noise.
"We call the police, register complaints, numerous people have done the same. Nothing has stopped the dogs for more than a day. We have about given up on WPD doing anything about it. After several years, you tune them out," said Michael Rich of Waynesville.
Sometimes, simply confronting the pet owner might make a difference, said Chuck Francis.
"I am a dog owner and my neighbor was nice enough to tell me that my dog was keeping them awake at night. The next day I went and purchased a bark collar....problem solved," he said.
Others take a unique approach.
"I just bark back," said Jack Stanford of Canton.