CASPER, Wyo— The definition of “excessive, repetitive, or sustained” barking was considered at great length at a public hearing of the Natrona County Commission Tuesday, Oct. 20.
Some residents in the neighborhood surrounding the Casper Animal Medical Center and Sunrise Pet Lodge say that barking from the kenneling facility is affecting their quality of life and have petitioned for relief from the county.
One resident, Linda Sloan, described the barking as an “endless tyranny.”
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“There is no relaxation in a zone of barking dogs,” she said, adding that studying, sleeping in, and concentrating were next to impossible.
“I doubt anyone here other than homeowners can appreciate how sweeping the damage is.” She added, however, that her complaints were not a reflection on the quality of services provided by the facility.
The Sunrise Pet Lodge provides both long term and daily boarding services for a number of animals. The facility can accommodate up to 100 animals, including cats and exotic pets. Kylie Mclean, manager of the facility, told Oil City News that currently 10 dogs were boarded there during what is “a slow time.”
To constitute a violation of Natrona County’s 2000 Zoning Resolution regarding “nuisances,”, the noise must be “audible beyond the boundaries of the property where the dogs are located” and be “excessive, repetitive, or sustained,.” Natrona County Attorney Eric Nelson said any of the 3 criteria could constitute a nuisance.
“If it’s day by day, does than mean it’s sustained?” asked Commissioner Forrest Chadwick.
Nelson replied that the statute was intentionally vague: “There’s not a bright line, like ’20 minutes a day’.”
Debate surrounding the installation of the animal hospital has existed since 2002, according to county planning and development director Jason Gutierrez. At that time, a zoning change was approved by the commissioners for the area from “urban residential” to “suburban residential,” which permitted the building of animal clinics and shelters. Some residents resisted, Gutierrez said.
The Sunrise Pet Lodge kennel operation, a subsidiary of the clinic, opened in 2015 and the county development department began receiving complaints about barking dogs within 12-15 months, Gutierrez said.
His department investigated and contacted the facility’s owners, who then installed Acoustiblock sound-deadening fabric on the east and north sides of the facility.
”We instantly noticed a difference,” Gutierrez said, and the county development department considered the issue closed in July 2018.
But complaints have continued: “The tarp just is not working,” said Sloan.
This summer, county developers returned with decibel meters to take sound readings at four locations in the neighborhood between 320-590 feet away from the kennel from to determine just how loud the barking dogs were compared to traffic noise from Wyoming Boulevard.
There was only a 2-3 decibel increase when the dogs were barking, on average. Of further concern was when and for how long the dogs were barking. Gutierrez estimated that the barking was consistent for about 30 minutes around 7:00 am and 11:00 am, and consistently between the hours of 3:30-5:00 pm.
One neighbor on Chinook avenue, Matthew Chenowith, said the barking lasted a lot longer.
“Most of us at one point in our lives have had that neighbor with the incessant barking dog,” he said.
“Now imagine that there are 30, 40, 50 of those barking dogs in one location, barking for 4-9 hours a day, 30-50% of the time.”
He said that he and other neighbors were not trying to shut the kennel down, but wanted the owner, Dr. Gail Menke, to “abide by her promises” to curb the noise. He noted that the county zoning committee had initially denied the zone change before the commissioners’ approved it in 2002, which they did provided that Menke ensure that the facility did not “disrupt” residents’ lives.
“The truth of the matter is that we are friends and customers and clients,” Chenowith said.
“It has not escaped my notice that the staff at the lodge have an impossible task. I have a lot of empathy for the employees and animals alike. It is probably impossible to control, which is why people generally don’t put dog kennels, especially ones as large as this, in residential neighborhoods.”
Commissioner Jim Milne asked whether the nuisance was not in the decibels but in the consistency and repetitive nature of barking noises, like the maddening drip of water torture.
Another nearby resident, Ashley Soap, told the commissioners that dog barks were a lot different from the “white noise” of Wyoming Boulevard, which she could tune out. “Dog barking is dog barking,” she said.
Brooke Greiner, hospital manager at the Casper Animal Medical Center, said the facility had already invested heavily in mitigating the noise, and worried that the complaints might continue even after further investments.
She said the kennel’s staff has tried everything from alternating runs, classical music, treats, separating problem animals, privacy tape on fences to limit social barking, and artificial “K9 grass” to mitigate digging and competitive behaviors.
She said there’s many reasons dogs bark, including separation anxiety, socialization, boredom, and excitement.
Greiner said the facility had spent $9,320 in Acoustiblock, $1,278 in sound barrier cloths, $15,000 on K9 grass (which she noted was installed after the county planners took their decibel readings) and $635 on a row of young trees that died due to wind.
She said the facility was looking at additional measures, including sound-deadening baffling panels and more trees, which could cost up to $14,000.
Commission Chairman Rob Hendry suggested those panels could be installed at a back-facing angle off the tops of fences to further trap noise from the facility from reaching neighbors.
If the commission had ruled that a nuisance existed, the kennel owners would have been given 14 days to enter a compliance agreement, which, if not resolved, could have ended up in district court.
“There is movement on trying to make it better,” Hendry said. “I’m reluctant to call it a nuisance and go the formal route.”
The commissioners ultimately made no motion ruling that the noise constituted a nuisance ordinance violation.
Commissioner Milne said the barking wouldn’t go away altogether without the business going away, so the goal was to come up with ideas to mitigate the noise as best as possible: “We can together, as a community. You guys have a real nice area to live in up there. You need to work it out…. From what I’m hearing, the Lodge has made a commitment to work it out. So the ball’s in your court.”
“I think one of the most exciting things about tonight is people used their voice and exercised the public process,” said Commissioner Brook Kaufman “I’m really proud of everyone who gets up and uses their voice. I appreciate their time and energy.”