Pet owners in St. Johns County are now up against stricter laws after the County Commission approved a revised animal ordinance with tougher rules on aggressive animals and larger consequences for irresponsible owners.
Only Commissioner Cyndi Stevenson did not vote to approve the ordinance, saying she wanted a second reading and felt there were too many changes to the language in the ordinance and not enough time to review it.
She also takes issue with the now-increased fines animal owners face for violations like not cleaning up after dogs.
"I love dogs, and the dogs in our neighborhood are good dogs," Nocatee resident Larry Hutton said.
Hutton has a lab and a stray cat at his home. He considers himself lucky to have responsible dog owners as neighbors, but is pleased to know those who aren't so responsible will face consequences for it.
"I see nothing wrong with increasing the penalty for habitual offenders," Hutton said. "I think I would maybe have the first offense a little lower and then go up as the people don't do what they're supposed to do."
The new St. Johns County ordinance increased the fines for violations. It used to be $68 for the first two violations, and for the third violation, pet owners would be forced to go to court.
Now it is $75 for the first violation, $150 for the second, $250 for the third, and $500 dollars plus a court date for the fourth.
"My primary concern is the accelerated fee structure could be hard on the non-violent offenders," Stevenson said. "It quickly goes up from $75 to $500 in just a few infractions, so it's very important for every citizen in St. Johns County that has a dog or a cat to take time to read this ordinance."
"Most of the people involved in writing this ordinance are people who enforce it or have to go to court to enforce these rules," Stevenson added. "I think it's important we also hear the possible unintended consequence to pet owners as well, responsible pet owners."
Animal Control Division Chief Paul Studivant says the new ordinance is a revised and combined version of several that were already in place, so enforcement is easier for the public and city, county and code officers to interpret.
Among other changes, it gives Animal Control officers the authority to label an animal a nuisance or aggressive animal, whereas the old ordinance only had a "dangerous" category.
"An aggressive dog can be any animal that shows a tendency and may injure another domesticated animal or a human, but it doesn't quite meet the plateau for a dangerous label, so we can then at that point label it as aggressive and put some restrictions on it," Studivant said.
If an animal is deemed aggressive, those restrictions can be to make the owner carry a $100,000 liability insurance policy, send the dog to obedience school and/or wear a muzzle any time it's outside the house.
"This is an important ordinance and it affects a lot of people and a wide range of users, people that have hunting dogs, people that have puppies," Stevenson said.
The ordinance also encompasses a county-wide pooper-scooper law now. Anyone who does not pick up after their dog does its business on someone else's property can be fined.
Commissioners and Animal Control suggest every pet owner in the county reads the ordinance and becomes familiar with it. It can be found on the county's website or at Animal Control.