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ANIMAL PLAN BRINGS ROARS

New Port Richey officials are hearing from outraged pet lovers and feeders of strays.

Last month's hearings about city spending drew barely a peep. But Tuesday's meeting about city creatures?

Expect a few roars.

New Port Richey City Council is holding its second hearing on a revised animal ordinance containing two controversial measures: a limit of three pets to each household and a ban on feeding strays.

City officials say they have been inundated with letters and calls from residents and nonresidents since details of the revised ordinance were discussed at a meeting last month.

But the ordinance, as written, may not have enough votes to pass. In separate interviews last week, Deputy Mayor Ginny Miller and council members Marilynn deChant and Rob Marlowe all said they want to get rid of the limit of three animals per household. (That three-pet limit is actually decades old, city officials say, but has rarely been enforced.)

Marlowe, owner of four cats, said the three-pet limit could be pushed to odd conclusions: The person who lives in a tiny apartment could have three Dobermans, the same number of parakeets that the owner of a large home could have.

"It defies logic," he said.

Marlowe and deChant are also opposed to the ban on feeding strays.

Martin Rickus, chief of police, emphasized that enforcement would be "complaint-driven," saying that officers would not be going door-to-door, for instance, to take a head count on the animals in each home.

"When you come to our attention is when people are complaining" about such things as barking dogs or property damage, he said.

Some say portions of the ordinance are well-intended, but ultimately ineffective. Pasco County veterinarian Terry Spencer, for instance, said in an e-mail to City Manager Scott Miller that the attempt to regulate the number of pets to three has no scientific basis.

"Certainly, one owner could be overwhelmed caring for just one dog, while another owner would be highly responsible with many more pets," Spencer wrote.

In unincorporated Pasco, having more than nine pets in a home could constitute a zoning violation depending on where you live. County land-use codes define a "kennel" as a building with more than nine dogs, cats or other domesticated animals. Kennels are not allowed in certain residential zones.

The revisions to the animal ordinance were initially going to be limited to adding a new section on the procedure for handling dangerous dogs. But City Attorney Tom Morrison, along with city police and code enforcement officials, say they found other parts of the ordinance that were antiquated.

The existing ordinance does conflict with state law when it comes to enforcement. State law says all animal control cases should be held in county court. The current ordinance, however, calls for cases to go before the code enforcement board, which is made up of citizen volunteers.

Just this year, in February, 6th Circuit Court Judge W. Lowell Bray Jr. voided nearly $11,000 in code enforcement liens against James DeGrace, who had kept dozens of cats -one estimate put the count at nearly 50 - at his Foley Square property.

The reason the court got rid of those liens? Back in 2002 and 2004, the city prosecuted DeGrace before the code enforcement board rather than the county court. DeGrace sued the city; some aspects of his suit remain in litigation.

The newly revised ordinance would make it clear that animal cases go to county court.

Rickus said Friday he wasn't sure if any accused violators of the animal ordinance after the DeGrace case had to face the code enforcement board.

The debate over the ordinance has also sparked ideas for a more comprehensive program for dealing with a high population of stray cats. Martha Murray, director of Suncoast Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said she is putting together a request for New Port Richey and Port Richey to help pay for a low-cost spay and neuter clinic.

The SPCA has a surgical suite at its Congress Street facility and would need money mainly to pay for veterinarian services, anesthesia and sutures. The clinic would be for stray cats captured in the two cities, she said.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at (727) 869-6247 or jtillman@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

If you go

The City Council meeting on the revised ordinance is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 5919 Main St.

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