The Watertown Public Safety and Welfare Committee will examine a proposed change to the city code Wednesday night that would make it illegal for citizens to own more than two pit bulls or other dogs deemed vicious by the city in their homes and would also make it against the law to own the dogs in any multi-family buildings.
The restrictions are a part of a larger ordinance change aimed at what city officials have called a serious vicious dog problem in the city. The committee has been working on the controversial ordinance change since last fall. A February meeting drew an overflow crowd of more than 100 people, with the majority asking the committee to punish dog owners, not specific breeds of dogs.
Safety Committee Chairman Fred Smith said the committee wants to promote safety and responsible dog ownership in the city.
"The goal is public safety. To protect the public from known dangerous dogs or high risk dogs of any kind," Smith said.
City Attorney William Grueber said if the draft ordinance is approved in its current form any resident who had a pit bull or other vicious dog in a multi-family building would be in violation of the city's laws. He added there is the possibility of grandfather provision would be added in allowing residents who already own a pit bull or other vicious dog and live in a multi-family unit to be able to keep their dogs legally. However, Smith said there are no grandfather clauses currently in the draft.
The meeting will start at 5 p.m. in room 8 in the municipal building, 106 Jones St. However, Smith said the committee will cover other business until 6 p.m. when the dog ordinance will be discussed. The committee had previously announced it would re-examining a ban on fishing off of the Milwaukee Street bridge at this meeting, but that debate has been moved back until sometime in August. Smith said Wednesday's meeting is open to the public, but the committee will not be taking public comments. He added there will be several more opportunities in the future for the public to weigh in on the issue.
The original ordinance would have named all pit bull breed dogs and mixes as vicious by nature and subject to restrictions. The new ordinance creates four classes of dogs:
-- At large: any dog off the premises of its owner not invited to another property or off leash.
-- High risk dog: all pit bull breeds and mixes.
-- Vicious dog: dogs that have been found to have a tendency to or have attacked, caused injury or attempted to attack a person or another domestic animal.
-- Prohibited dangerous dog: any dog that has inflicted substantial bodily harm or caused the death of a person, is rabid, a wild animal hybrid or dog trained for dog fighting.
The ordinance defines high risk dogs as pit bull breeds including American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier or any dog displaying a majority of physical traits of one or more of those breeds.
Smith said there are a number of exemptions where dogs who have bitten or attacked another or person would not be deemed vicious, such as a someone breaking onto a private residence or a dog being provoked or attacked. There is also an appeals process in place for owners whose dogs are deemed vicious.
Smith said pit bulls are not banned in the ordinance, but there is a heightened degree of owner responsibly.
According to the ordinance, no person in the city may own a prohibited dangerous dog. Owners of pit bull breeds and vicious dogs would be subject to a number of restrictions under the new ordinance including:
-- Dogs must be on a leash of no longer than 4 feet in length when off of the owners property. Anyone walking one of the dogs must be 16 years of age or older, be competent to govern the dog's behavior and capable of physically controlling and restraining the dog.
-- Dogs must be either confined indoors or in a securely enclosed pen, kennel or other structure on the owner's property. Dogs also cannot be confined on a porch or patio that would allow the dog to exist the house or building.
-- Warning signs must be placed on the property of any residence that owns a high risk or vicious dog.
-- All high risk dogs or vicious dogs must be spayed or neutered after they are 5 months or older.
-- Owners must register high risk or vicious dogs on or before Sept. 1 of this year and every year after as a high risk or vicious dogs. Owners must also present a color picture of the dog, proof of spaying or neutering, pay a special registration fee of $25 and provide proof of liability insurance of at least $100,000.
-- No high risk or vicious dogs may be owned or present in any multi-family building.
-- No one may own more than two high risk or vicious dogs.
Grueber said he expected the major point of contention with some people would be the restrictions on multi-family housing. He added it was important to remember the ordinance is currently just a draft and he believed it was highly unlikely it would be passed by the Watertown Common Council exactly in its current form.
The ordinance is still several steps away from being made into law. The safety committee must first finish the draft and then will vote to make a negative or positive recommendation to the common council. The council would than have to pass the ordinance at two separate meetings before it would go into affect.
In addition to the restrictions on pit bulls and other high risk dogs, Smith said the ordinance raises the fines for dog owners who do not register their pets, let them run at large and violate other city laws.
"There have been some modification to the bond schedules, for a long period of time there has been inadequate sanctions for dogs running at large or unlicensed dogs. We are taking a firmer view towards that here," Smith said. "We have set a range with minimum forfeitures for conduct that violates the ordinance."
For example in the new ordinance a dog owner would face a fine between $50 and $100 for a first time dog at large ticket. The fine would increase to $200 to $300 on a second offense and $600 to $1,000 for a third and any subsequent offenses.
"There is an effort to try and deal with dogs at large by our law enforcement and to promote registration. What we kept hearing is don't be breed specific when the problem comes from irresponsible ownership ... (the ordinance) provides the tools to ensure we have a community that is safe from dangerous dogs."