Last week, the Orange County Board of Commissioners ended nearly two years of contentious public debate over the question of whether dog owners should be permitted to tie or chain their pets. By a 4-1 vote, commissioners rejected 24/7 tethering as a humane method of containment, limiting the time a dog can be attached to a stationary object to three hours in any 24-hour period.

“It’s been a long road, but we’re glad that the board is taking this step to ensure that dogs in Orange County are treated humanely,” said Amanda Arrington, director of the Coalition to Unchain Dogs, an advocacy group that has lobbied both the Orange and Durham county governments to ban tethering and also volunteers labor and materials to liberate chained dogs by building fences for families who can’t afford them.

Suzanne Roy, a member of the citizen committee that recommended the changes, echoed a now-famous campaign slogan in addressing the board Thursday night.

“Orange County is ready for a change; it is the right thing to do,” Roy said before the vote.

Opponent Tim Wright disagreed.

“We already have an ordinance in place for neglect,” he pleaded before the board. “Why do we need another one?”

Commissioners will give the new law a second reading Nov. 18; it is expected to pass with a majority.

Commissioner Mike Nelson noted after the meeting that Durham County’s passage of an anti-tethering ordinance earlier this year helped spur Orange County’s action. Like Durham, the Orange plan will be phased in over time. The first year, which begins with the second vote next week, will consist of a public education and outreach program, in which residents will be informed of the new rules. In the following six months, animal control officers will issue warnings; the full penalties take effect at the 18-month mark, and include fines of up to $400 and possible seizure of tethered dogs.

“It took longer than I had predicted,” said Nelson, the commissioners’ liaison to the study committee. “But I’m thrilled that it looks like we’re going to pass the ordinance.”

Other commissioners were more reserved. Commissioner Valerie Foushee was the sole opposing vote, while Chairman Barry Jacobs expressed concern over how the restrictions would be enforced. Jacobs suggested that the board review the ordinance in two years. Jacobs also recommended that the Orange County Animal Services department provide the board a “status report” based on the number of warnings issued during the following six-month grace period.

“For me, this a little bit of a leap of faith that this is the right course,” he told his fellow commissioners. “I’m willing to do it, but given the questions that have been raised, I would like to know if we’ve done what we set out to do or if we did something that is unnecessary.”

Commissioner-elect Steve Yuhasz, who will join the board in December, was more blunt: “It strikes me that this is a solution in search of a problem,” he said, noting that just 10 percent of the complaints received by Orange County Animal Services involved tethering.

According to a review provided to the board, Animal Services received 391 complaints of animal cruelty in fiscal year 2008, but only 37 were tethering relatedthough the report also advised that the available data was extremely limited and should be interpreted with caution.

The Nov. 6 vote caps months of controversy that began with a study by a citizen committee appointed to examine the pros and cons of tethering dogs. Several public hearings on the proposed change were held, drawing impassioned residents from both sides of the issue. In the midst of the process, a March 2007 investigation by the Independent revealed that one member of the committee, Alane Koki, did not live in Orange County (a requirement for service) and had business ties to a local breeder of fighting pit bulls, Tom Garner. Koki resigned as a result.

Garner, who owns and operates the county’s largest dog kennel near Hillsborough and uses chains, keeps more than 100 pit bulls, according to county records. All of Garner’s dogs are licensed and vaccinated in compliance with Orange County regulations, records show.

Asked about his future plans for containing his dogs without chains, Garner responded via e-mail: “As always, I will comply with the spirit and letter of all Orange County animal control ordinances.”

Other opponents of the banmost of them from the more rural parts of Orange Countycomplained that the problem is not tethering but neglectful owners. Others opined that if Orange County were to enforce already existing anti-cruelty guidelines, there would be no need for additional restrictions.

But county pet-licensing records obtained by the Independent show that several of the measure’s most vocal opponents either do not own any dogs, or own dogs that aren’t licensed, or own dogs that are neither licensed nor vaccinated for rabies in accordance with current county laws.

For example, the county has no record of any dogs belonging to George Painter, president of the Eno River Coon Hunters Association. Painter and other representatives of the hunters’ group protested the tethering ban at several public hearings.

Bobby Kirk, owner of the Cane Creek Farms kennel in Efland, is on record as owning 24 English setters. But Kirk, who advocates tethering as a dog-training tool, has had significant lapses in his kennel licensinga problem Animal Services Director Bob Marotto says is due partly to Kirk and partly to the county’s lack of follow-up.

Records show that Kirk was not in compliance last year when he received an operating permit for Cane Creek. Orange County requires that kennel owners comply with all of the applicable animal-related regulations before their operating licenses are renewed. According to the inspection form, none of the 24 English setters at Cane Creek the day of the inspection had valid licenses.

“There were a number of people that did not do all of what we want them to do in the course of our administration of the permit process,” explained Bob Marotto, director of Orange County Animal Services. “We’re much more cognizant of that than we’ve ever been. And we’re going to take measures to ensure that there are no more situations like these.”

Asked what he planned to do if the tethering ordinance passed, Kirk indicated that either he or one of the other opponents would sue the county.

“I can’t operate if I don’t tether dogs,” he said.

Meanwhile, Nelson said he’s confident the county will be able to enforce the additional restrictions.

“We’ve asked the staff of Animal Services if they would have a problem handling this, and they’ve said that the new ordinance will result in fewer animal cruelty complaints, and I have no reason to believe that they can’t,” he said.

The real concern from the opponents, Nelson said, is that they just don’t like government dictating what they can and cannot do.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “there’s just no addressing that.”