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After 27 years Bellingham’s leash law is under review

The city aims to emphasize responsible persons to control their animals

Ma' the dog overlooking Cedar Lake, at Larrabee State Park in Bellingham Wash. on Sept. 6, 2019. The dog seems perfectly under control, but how can an owner be completely certain? // Courtesy of Stacie M. Gummere

The ordinance that pertains to dogs being off-leash has struggled to clearly define how a dog should be leashed and what exactly defines an animal as being under control. This Bellingham, Washington municipal code was first written in 1995.

The revision which the City Council reviewed on Feb. 28, is focused on fixing the issue of defining control.

The ordinance saw a single revision back in August 2021 that cleaned up some of the language in regards to the way it referenced other municipal codes. The latest revision aims to adjust the language to better clarify the definition of an owner keeping their dog under control. 

The revised ordinance is also striking the term owner and dog in favor of responsible party and animal accordingly.

“The parks department has a citizen dog task force that has been meeting over the prior year,” said Nicole Oliver, director of Parks and Recreation. “[They] came back with a recommendation that a leash length would not help the problem at this point — that what we really needed to do was clarify what it meant to be under control.”

She said the proposed change determines that an animal is not considered under control if it comes into contact with another person or animal. That animal could be another person’s pet or wildlife. 

Ma' and Inaya sitting at Lost Lake Trail, in Larrabee State Park in Bellingham, Wash. on August 28, 2017. Two dogs are all leashed up and patiently waiting for their hike to begin. // Courtesy of Stacie M. Gummere

“The group and the park board subsequently recommended approval of this approach as an increase in education signage,” she said. “To try and really improve people's understanding of what the rules are and try to approach it that way rather than jumping to enforcement of something that we're already having a hard time enforcing, which is leashes, to begin with.”

Nicholas Ferguson, a dog owner who often takes hikes with his dog to places like Larrabee State Park, said he thought an update to the code was a good idea, but he had some concerns based on how exactly it gets executed. 

“I think it definitely sounds like [the new language] puts more emphasis on the owner to have proper control over an animal,” he said. “One problem that I see is enforcing it, you're going to have tons of opportunity to point out that an animal isn't under proper control, but the only real way to, for sure, tell that is after something has already happened.” 

Ferguson said he wondered if there could be a way to make the law clarify an actual distance that a dog had to remain away from other people or animals, that way the ordinance could be enforced before someone was injured.

Lieutenant Claudia Murphey of the Bellingham Police Department said that 2022 has already had one incident involving a dog bite. She had also heard about the parks’ request for limited commission which would give them the authority to write notices of infractions, a system that has been very beneficial in the past for the police. 

“It empowers the Parks Department employees to be able to handle these civil infractions at the time of occurrence instead of having to call police, who might be investigating a higher priority case and not being able to respond,” she said. “That would mean there are no consequences for those committing the civil infraction, as we have to see those to issue a ticket.” 

The City Council approved the first and second reading of the ordinance, and the final reading is planned for March 14. The ordinance will go into effect 15 days after this final reading.

Chauncey Gummere

Chauncey Gummere (he/him) is one of the city news reporters for the Front this quarter. He is a third-year, majoring in Journalism with an emphasis on Public Relations. Chauncey’s most recent writing accomplishment was free-lancing for an Australian gaming company. 

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