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Little Compton

A new leash on (dog) life in Little Compton

At its March 7, 2024 meeting, the Little Compton Town Council voted to approve the wording of the sign included below, for posting on town-owned property, particularly the adjacent parking areas at Veterans Field and the soccer field.

The sign’s terse message distills the substance of the Council’s significant amendment of the town’s animal control ordinance three months earlier, on December 7, 2023. At that time, the Council voted to add, among other provisions, this new language to Chapter 4 (“Animal Control”) of the Little Compton Town Code:

No person, being the owner of keeper of or having the charge or custody of any dog, shall allow such dog to run loose off its owner or keeper’s property within the Town of Little Compton unless such dog is properly leashed and said leash is controlled by the owner or keeper of such dog. A dog or other animal is considered “leashed” within the meaning of this chapter only when it has a cord or chain attached to its collar or harness and is held by the owner, keeper or competent person leading said animal, who shall have the animal under control.

Little Compton, in other words, now has a leash law.

As best I can tell, the Council’s December action to amend the Animal Control ordinance has received little or no public notice in local newspapers or other news outlets. The signs have not been erected as of the publication of this post. But approval of their wording and format represents the first significant public action by the Council, the Police Department, and other town officials to inform town residents, especially dog owners, about their new responsibilities under the recently amended ordinance.

Council members were prompted to act on March 7 in response to a letter from a resident who regularly walks her small dogs in the vicinity of the Commons. She described the unsettling circumstances that have occurred on her regular walking circuits with her pets:

I’d like to request two signs to be erected to inform dog owners of the leash ordinance, one facing the parking area at Veteran’s field and the second facing the parking area in front of the soccer field. The number of dog owners who are unaware of the leash law or choose to use the fields as a play area for their dogs remains an issue on nearly a day-by-day basis. The problem will increase when the summer population, assumedly unaware of local ordinances, returns to town. Signage stating that the leash law must be followed in public areas will help to establish a better understanding of dog owners’ responsibilities.

One too many times an off-leash dog has stalked and circled my small dogs while the owner shouts that their dog is friendly and does nothing to call off their dog. Recently one of my dogs was attacked by an off-leash dog whose owner was on the other side of his truck, oblivious, and a school parent rushed over to help. I should be able to safely walk my dogs around the fields without worrying about off-leash dogs. I am aware that I can call the LCPD as needed but ask that you consider a preventative step by establishing signage that makes clear the leash law is in effect at public areas in town.

The Town Council’s modest response to this citizen’s reasonable request was appropriate and useful. It’s no surprise, though, that Little Compton residents may not have been aware that the Council had acted earlier, on December 7, 2023, in a somewhat uncustomary flurry of local legislative activity, to amend substantially the town’s animal control ordinance for the first time in decades.

The Animal Control ordinance was only one of several ordinances the Council amended on December 7, however. Five ordinances involved zoning (Chapter 14). Town Solicitor Anthony DeSisto had advised the Town Council and Planning Board that such changes were necessary to comply with recent amendments of state law, some of which took effect on January 1 of this year. As listed on the December 7 meeting agenda, these zoning amendment proposals included:

Chapter 14-2.7 – Land nonconforming by area
Chapter 14-5.5 – Accessory Dwelling Units
Chapter 14-9.1 – Enforcement
Chapter 14-9.4 – Voting
Chapter 14-9.5 a – Special Use Permits Standards
Chapter 14-9.6 – Dimensional Variance Standards]

The Council’s December 7 vote to repeal the town’s accessory dwelling unit (ADU) ordinance, section 14-5.5, generated lively debate and newspaper coverage. In response to citizens’ continuing expressions of concern about repealing the former ADU ordinance, however, the Council on February 22, 2024, adopted a new ADU ordinance section 14-5-5.

As listed on the Council agenda for that December 7 hearing and meeting, two additional non-zoning ordinance amendments were considered and adopted that night:

Chapter 3 – Police Regulations: to include language regarding the use of cannabis in public.

Chapter 5 – Traffic: to increase parking fees.

It was a busy and productive night’s work for the Town Council. However, citizens who didn’t attend the December 7 hearing/meeting, or who didn’t watch its livestream or subsequent recording, wouldn’t otherwise have easily learned about the scope, detail, and impact of the several ordinance amendments enacted at the time, including the animal control ordinance.

* * *

A year ago, in a post titled “Charges dismissed: Not-so-amusing facts of life and politics in a small town,” I described some of the consequences of Little Compton’s reliance of its outdated “animal control” ordinance—specifically its provisions regarding dogs—and the town’s inconsistent enforcement of that ordinance.

In early 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted so many aspects of everyday life and governmental activity, the Town Council, on which I then served, heard from many town citizens concerning repeated incidents involving the control of loose and aggressive dogs, especially in Little Compton’s Oak Forest neighborhood. At its January 9, 2020 meeting, the Council voted to ask “the [Police] Chief to return to the Town Council with any recommendations he may feel are prudent as it relates to the Town’s animal at large ordinances.”

Police Chief Scott Raynes, who had been sworn in the previous June, wasted no time acting on the Council’s directive. He presented draft ordinances to the Council at its March 5, 2020 meeting. Reviewing that draft today, the Chief’s original proposals for amending the animal control ordinance appear quite modest, at least to me. In any case, the minutes from that meeting record the Council’s deliberations and actions regarding his proposal as follows, in full:

A draft proposal to amend Chapter 4 relating to dogs was received from the Police Chief, Town Solicitor and Town Administrator. The Solicitor [Richard Humphrey at the time] feels the matter should undergo another review to simplify the wording. After a brief discussion the following was voted:

Motion made by Councilor Golembeske, receiving a second by Councilor Mataronas, voting in favor (Anderson, Golembeske, Mataronas, Moore and Mushen): To direct the Town Solicitor to return to the March 19, 2020 Town Council meeting with a simpler form of amendment to the Town Code as it relates to dogs and animals at large.    

As events developed in the days immediately following the Council’s March 5 meeting, the world, including Little Compton town government, was turned upside down by the sudden arrival of stiff restrictions in response to COVID 19. There was no March 19, 2020 meeting, as the Town Council (and everybody else) scrambled to figure out how to hold meetings remotely by Zoom. No “simpler form” of Chief Raynes’s original draft amendment of Chapter 4 was seen again over the next three years. The Council placed the matter on the back burner.

The issue remained front and center for some town residents, however, especially those from the Oak Forest neighborhood, who continued to report concerns and incidents regarding one dog owner in particular whose dogs were often unrestrained. At its February 9, 2023 meeting, the Council received a one-paragraph letter from one Oak Forest resident, asking the Council “to continue the process of updating the Control of and Licensing dogs Ordinances. It was paused during Covid and looking to complete as soon as possible.”

At that February 9 meeting, the Council voted as follows:

Motion made by Councilor Golembeske, receiving a second by Councilor Iriarte-Moore, all in favor (Golembeske, Iriarte-Moore, McHugh, Mushen): To allow Councilors Golembeske and Mushen to develop a draft amendment to the current ordinances on dogs and return to the March 23, 2023 Council meeting for further consideration.

The Council’s March 23, 2023 minutes include the following account of what happened at that meeting:

Councilor Mushen stated continuation from the February 9, 2023 meeting of the draft amendment to the dog ordinance will be for [review] and consider[ation], not an approval session. Councilor Golembeske gave a synopsis of the draft amendment to the dog ordinance. Chief Raynes clarified key points within the draft amendment dog ordinance asked of Councilors. Sheila Mackintosh, of Wordell Lane asked about fees for neutered or spayed dogs. James Odell, of Sakonnet Trail commented that he has discussed at length with the Police Chief in the past and thanked the Chief for his efforts on this matter. Mr. Odell stated that discussion had was not for a leash law, this is not to affect all animals in town, just those that are problem animals. Andrew Rhyne, of Pachet Brook Road provided the Council with a written statement of comments. Mr. Rhyne stated that he and his wife have been bitten by a dog in his neighborhood. They are constantly harassed by dogs in his area. Mr. Rhyne suggested that homeowners need to be held accountable through insurance coverage requirements, training and a fence of some sort.

This matter will come before the council at a later date for further discussion.

As best I can tell, the matter next came up for discussion by the Town Council six months later, at its September 7, 2023 meeting. At that time, the Council reviewed draft ordinance amendments for Town Code chapters 3 (Police Regulations), 4 (Animal Control), and 5 (Traffic). In discussing the proposed Animal Control amendment, Chief Raynes, according to the Council’s minutes, noted that it included changes to the prior draft, “codifying state law for registering dogs” and “clarify[ing] where complaints are filed.” An addition to sec. 4-2, he added, offered “broader description of leashing of dogs.”

Various citizens, including myself, spoke in support of the proposed amendment of Chapter 4, as drafted. The draft amendments for Chapters 3, 4, and 5 were referred back to the Police Chief and Town Solicitor, “for their revision based on comments and changes suggested” at the meeting.

The next step in the process took place at a November 2, 2023 Council meeting. At that time, the Council reviewed the various zoning amendments that had been introduced in the prior meetings and approved the versions that would be presented at a December 7, 2023 public hearing. The only change to the previous draft of the Animal Control ordinance was to double the proposed fines for violations of Chapter 4, to $50, $100, and $200 for, respectively, first, second, and third offenses. (Since 1984, the fine schedule had been $10, $15, and $25.)

The Town Council’s December 7, 2023 adoption of substantial amendments of the Animal Control ordinance, as principally drafted by Police Chief Scott Raynes, represents—or has the potential to represent—a significant change in how the town regulates the control and treatment of domestic animals in town, particularly dogs. For instance, another notable addition to the Animal Control ordinance is Section 4.4, “Care of Dogs,” which provides legal standards and authority to intervene for the protection of dogs that are inadequately fed and watered or tethered by physically abusive means. The new provisions of the Town Code, depending upon how the public adapts to them and the Police Department enforces them, may alter the habits and relationships involving Little Compton’s dog owners, the dogs they own, and others in town who don’t own dogs.

Police Chief Raynes deserves credit for his recent thoughtful, measured proposals, which the Council, also to its credit, adopted without significant modification. Raynes was at pains at the December 7 meeting to assure the Council and citizens that the new ordinance provisions will be enforced with “discretion” by town police officers, especially as dog owners and citizens learn of and become accustomed to some of the ordinance’s requirements, including the specific provision that dogs outside an owner’s property must by “properly leashed and said leash is controlled by the owner or keeper of such dog.”

“Discretion” can be abused, of course. But, for better or worse, the police also used discretion in interpreting and applying the archaic “animals at large” ordinance that was intended primarily for the control of agricultural animals and that doesn’t even specifically mention dogs. Time will tell whether the newly amended ordinance, especially the leash requirement, will be enforced consistently and even-handedly. I believe the leash requirement will at least provide a more concrete standard by which the police can assess problematic incidents and encounters involving dogs.

One citizen, in a written statement provided to the Council in advance of the December 7 hearing, lamented that a strict leash law could undermine what he described as Little Compton’s “country vibe.” His concern is one that many town residents no doubt share. Maintaining the town’s “rural character” is an official town policy and objective, as included in the town’s Comprehensive Plan. (See, for example, Historic & Cultural Resources Goal HC1: “Maintain and Protect the Rural Character, Visual Aesthetics and Heritage of the Town.”) But the reality is that the day-to-day character of the town, both on the landscape and as a fact of our daily lives, represents for most residents an essentially “suburban” way of life. Most of us are not farmers. The “rural” roads, now paved and widened, that we use today in our fast-moving cars were laid out and for much of the town’s history used by animal-propelled vehicles and on foot. Our public spaces, including those roads themselves, are shared by vehicles, runners, bicyclists, walkers, and dogs. The new version of the Animal Control ordinance adopted by the Town Council on December 7 recognizes these current conditions and practices. It will be up to the rest of us—police officers, dog owners, and those who don’t own dogs—to be respectful of each other’s concerns, safety, and personal space. Not least important, the new version of the ordinance is intended to protect the welfare of the town’s domesticated animals, especially dogs.

* * *

I include below the full text of Chapter 4 (Animal Control) of the Town Code, as adopted and amended on December 7, 2023. The new and/or amended ordinance language in that chapter is highlighted in red:

§ 4-1
CONTROL AND LICENSING OF DOGS. [1]
[Amended in entirety 12-7-2023. Prior history includes Ord. 6/11/62; Ord. 8/23/84.]
[1]
Editor’s Note: For State Law as to the authority of the Town Council, see Gen. Laws, 1956 as amended, Title 4, Chapter 13.

§ 4-1.1
Barking, Biting or Howling Dogs.
[Amended 12-7-2023]
a.
If a complaint is made to the police department or the Animal Control Officer about any dog within the Town, which, by barking, biting, howling, by reason of doing damage to property, or in any other way or manner, unreasonably disturbs the peace, or annoys any person, the Police Department or the Animal Control Officer shall investigate the matter. If, after investigation, they shall find facts to warrant the complaint, and if after due notice to the person owning or keeping such dog or permitting such dog to be kept, the Police Department or Animal Control Officer ascertain that the nuisance is not abated, the Police Department or Animal Control Officer shall give notice to such person owning or keeping the dog or permitting the dog to be kept to forthwith remove such dog and keep him beyond the limits of the Town; and such person shall thereupon cause such dog to be forthwith removed and kept beyond the limits of the Town.
b.
A dog is considered to “unreasonably disturb the peace” if it causes a disturbance by excessive barking or other noise making for sustained periods of more than one-half hour during the day or night so as to disturb the quiet of a neighborhood or area. This subsection does not apply to a dog guarding, working or herding livestock.
c.
A dog is considered a “nuisance” if it damages, soils, defiles, or defecates on private property other than the owner’s or on public property, unless such waste is immediately removed and properly disposed of by the owner of such dog.

§ 4-1.2
Disturbing the Peace or Nuisance, Penalty.
[Amended 12-7-2023]
a.
The owner of the dog(s) deemed to be unreasonably disturbing the peace or a nuisance may be fined according to Section 4-6 of this chapter.

§ 4-1.3
Confinement of Certain Dogs and Other Animals.
[Amended 12-7-2023]
a.
The owner shall confine permanently within a building or secure enclosure, every fierce, dangerous, or vicious dog, and shall not take such dog out of such building or secure enclosure unless such dog is securely muzzled.
b.
The owner of every female dog in heat shall keep it confined in a building or secure enclosure, or in a veterinary hospital or boarding kennel, in such a manner that such female dog cannot come in contact with another dog, except for intentional breeding purposes.
c.
Any dog described in the foregoing subsections, found at large, may be impounded by the Animal Control Officer.

§ 4-1.4
Miscellaneous Provisions.
[Amended 12-7-2023]
a.
Immediately upon impounding dogs or other animals the Animal Control Officer or any Police Officer shall make reasonable efforts to notify the owners of such dogs or other animals, so impounded, and inform such owners of the conditions whereby they may regain custody of such animals. It shall be the duty of the Animal Control Officer to keep, or cause to be kept, accurate and detailed records of the impoundment and disposition of all animals coming into his/her custody. Unlicensed dogs that are unclaimed after five (5) days may be placed up for adoption at the discretion of the Animal Control Officer if not claimed by their owner.
b.
Under emergency circumstances, the Animal Control Officer or any Police Officer may destroy any injured or maimed animal after making reasonable efforts to contact the owner of said animal if owner’s identification is present on the animal.
c.
It shall not be the responsibility of the Animal Control Officer or any Police Officer to dispose of dogs at owner’s request. The owner of a dog or any domestic animal who wishes to dispose of such animal, shall assume all cost and the responsibility for same.
d.
Every owner or keeper of a dog shall annually, in the month of April, cause such dog to be licensed from the first day of the ensuing May 1, in the office of the Town Clerk. Such owner or keeper shall pay to the Town Clerk the currently required license fee. Any person who shall become the owner or keeper of a dog in the Town shall cause the dog to be licensed within 30 days after they becomes the owner or keeper. Every person, owning or keeping a dog not licensed and/or collared according to the provisions of this section shall be fined $25, and that fine shall be in addition to all other lawful fees.
e.
No license shall be issued for any dog required to be licensed in the Town, unless the person making application shall first present to the duly authorized person a current certificate of vaccination or inoculation for said dog from a certified veterinary provider.
f.
All complaints made under the provisions of this section shall be made to the Animal Control Officer or any Police Officer and may be made by telephone or in person at the Little Compton Public Safety Complex.

§ 4-1.5
Investigation.
[Amended 12-7-2023]
In the discharge of the duties imposed by this section, the Animal Control Officer or any Police Officer shall have the authority at all reasonable times to enter upon any premises (but such authority should not include the right to enter any residence on such premises without owner’s permission) to examine a dog or other animal which it is reasonable to suspect is in violation of a provision of this section. Such officer shall have the further authority to take possession of any such dog or other animal and remove it from such premises.

§ 4-1.6
Provisions in Addition to General Law.
[Amended 12-7-2023]
Subsections 4-1.1, 4-1.2, 4-1.3, 4-1.4 and 4-1.5 are to be in addition to the provisions set forth in the Rhode Island General Laws, 1956, Title 4, Chapter 13, as amended.

§ 4-1.7
Enforcement.
[Amended 12-7-2023]
Any Police Officer or Animal Control Officer may, where applicable, enforce the provisions of this chapter.

§ 4-2
ANIMALS AT LARGE. [1]
[Amended in entirety 12-7-2023. Prior history includes Ord. 6/11/62; Ord. 4/8/76; Ord. 6/23/77; Ord. 7/18/91.]
[1]
Editor’s Note: For State Law as to the authority of the Town Council, see Gen. Laws, 1956 as amended, Title 4, Chapters 14, 15 and 16.

§ 4-2.1
Leashing of Dogs.
[Amended 12-7-2023]
a.
No person, being the owner of keeper of or having the charge or custody of any dog, shall allow such dog to run loose off its owner or keeper’s property within the Town of Little Compton unless such dog is properly leashed and said leash is controlled by the owner or keeper of such dog. A dog or other animal is considered “leashed” within the meaning of this chapter only when it has a cord or chain attached to its collar or harness and is held by the owner, keeper or competent person leading said animal, who shall have the animal under control. It is unlawful for any owner of a dog to place that dog or allow it to be placed in the custody of any other person not physically capable or maintaining effective control or restricting the dog. Any dog found in this Town off the owner’s or keeper’s premises, acting in a threatening or menacing manner, or biting or attempting to bite any person so as to constitute a public menace, may be impounded.

§ 4-2.2
Leashing of Dogs, Penalty.
[Amended 12-7-2023]
Any person who willfully or negligently permits or allows a dog(s) to wander on or run at large upon any public or private property in the Town other than the property of the owner of the dog(s) may be fined according to Section 4-6 of this chapter.

§ 4-2.3
Animals at Large Prohibited, Penalty.
[Amended 12-7-2023]
Any person who willfully or negligently permits or allows any cattle, horse, sheep, goat or pig, or any other animal to escape or stray from its enclosure or restraint onto or to wander on or run at large upon any public or private property in the Town other than the property of the owner of the animal may be fined according to Section 4-6 of this chapter.

§ 4-2.4
Dogs Prohibited on South Shore Beach.
[Amended 12-7-2023]
No dogs shall be allowed on South Shore Beach during the hours the beach is open.

§ 4-2.5
Dogs Prohibited on Goose Wing Beach.
[Amended 12-7-2023]
Dogs are always prohibited on Goose Wing Beach.

§ 4-3
AGGRESSIVE DOGS.

§ 4-3.1
Definitions.
[Added 12-7-2023]
a.
Aggressive dog means any dog that, is determined in writing by a hearing pursuant to the provisions of RIGL § 4-13.1-11, when unprovoked, bites, harms or attacks a human being or other animal either on public or private property; or one who has been determined to be aggressive by another municipality.
b.
Enclosure means a fence or structure at least six feet in height; suitable to prevent the entry of young children and suitable to confine an aggressive dog. Such enclosure shall be securely enclosed and locked with secure sides, top and bottom to prevent escape of the dog from the enclosure.

§ 4-3.2
Registration of Aggressive Dogs Required.
[Added 12-7-2023]
a.
Any person having custody, ownership or control of an aggressive dog as defined must register said dog with the Town.
b.
No such dog shall be registered or licensed unless the owner or keeper shall meet the following requirements:
1.
The owner or keeper shall present the Town Clerk, proof of liability insurance in the amount of at least $100,000 valid for one year from the date of registration and fully paid, covering any damage or injury which may be caused by such aggressive dog.
2.
The owner or keeper shall not voluntarily cancel the liability insurance unless they cease to own or keep the aggressive dog.
3.
The owner of keeper shall notify the Police Department within a reasonable amount of time if the aggressive dog is on the loose, has attacked, bitten, or injured, whether provoked or unprovoked and human or another animal or has died or been sold or given away.
4.
The owner or keeper must ensure that the aggressive dog is securely muzzled and restrained with a leash not exceeding three feet whenever it is outside the owners dwelling or a secure dog enclosure.

§ 4-4 CARE OF DOGS.

§ 4-4.1
Nourishment.
[Added 12-7-2023]
a.
It shall be a violation of this section for an owner or keeper of a dog(s) to fail to provide a dog with adequate feed, adequate clean water, or adequate veterinary care. The adequate veterinary care may be provided by an owner using acceptable animal husbandry practices.

§ 4-4.2
Inclement Weather.
[Added 12-7-2023]
a.
It shall be a violation of this section for an owner or keeper of a dog(s) to keep a dog outside of adequate shelter during inclement weather.

§ 4-4.3
Tethering.
[Added 12-7-2023]
a.
It shall be a violation of this section for an owner or keeper of a dog(s) to tether a dog:
1.
With a choke type or prong type collar.
2.
For more than 10 hours during a 24-hour period.
3.
Outside between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. except for a maximum of 15 minutes.

§ 4-4.4
Care of Dogs, Penalty.
[Added 12-7-2023]
a.
The owner or keeper of a dog(s) deemed to be in violation of the care of dogs section may have the dog (s) removed from their care and shall be fined according to Section 4-6 of this chapter.

§ 4-5
FEES FOR REDEMPTION OF IMPOUNDED ANIMALS. [1]
[Amended in entirety 12-7-2023. Prior history includes Ord. 7/11/55, § 1; Ord. 8/23/84, § 5.]
[1]
Editor’s Note: For State Law as to the authority of the Town Council, see Public Laws of 1955, Chapter 3571; see also, General Laws as amended, Chapter 641.

§ 4-5.1
Poundage Fees.
[Amended 12-7-2023]
The owner of any animal going at large that has been impounded shall not take the animal out of the shelter until they have paid a $100 impound release fee. Upon payment an animal release form will be provided by the Little Compton Police Department. A grace period for payment of or waiving of the impound release fee shall be at the discretion of the Chief of Police. If the animal in question is a dog and the owner of said dog is a resident of the Town of Little Compton, the resident shall license the dog and obtain an animal release form prior to the dog being picked up from the shelter.

§ 4-5.2
Regulations Are in Addition to General Laws.
[Amended 12-7-2023]
This section is in addition to the provisions of Chapter 641 of the General Laws as amended and is in no way to be construed as a limitation thereof.

§ 4-6
SCHEDULE OF FINES. [1]
[Ord. 8/23/84, § 8; amended 12-7-2023]
Under authority granted in Title 4, Chapter 13, Section 1 (4-13-1) of the General Laws of Rhode Island, 1956 as amended, entitled “Regulatory Ordinances-Enforcement”, the following procedure is hereby established to permit the enforcement of the Ordinances of the Town of Little Compton pertaining to Chapter IV, Animal Control by pecuniary penalty to be recovered by action of debt which may be offered to the person violating this chapter.

Unless otherwise stated in this chapter the following schedule of fees is herein established:

First offense          $50
Second offense    $100
Third offense       $200

Failure by the violator to dispose of any violation in the manner herein provided will be deemed to be a waiver, on the part of the violator to be allowed such privilege, and the Chief of Police will cause a complaint to be filed in the Second Division Court, Newport, Rhode Island.

The Chief of Police is hereby directed to have printed summonses containing information as to the violation being cited, the manner in which the violator may pay for the offense, by paying the prescribed fee to the Town Treasurer, or set forth the date and time for appearance in Court.
[1]
Editor’s Note: For State Law as to the authority of the Town Council, see Gen. Laws, 1956 as amended, Title 4, Chapter 13.

§ 4-7
FILING OF COMPLAINTS.
[Added 12-7-2023]
All complaints made under the provisions of this chapter shall be made to the Animal Control Officer or any Police Officer and may be made by telephone or in person at the Little Compton Public Safety Complex.