GREEN COVE SPRINGS – It looks like exotic animals potentially in need of rescue in Clay County may have to wait awhile for approval as the Board of County Commissioners decided at its Dec. 12 …
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – It looks like exotic animals potentially in need of rescue in Clay County may have to wait awhile for approval as the Board of County Commissioners decided at its Dec. 12 meeting that proposed zoning regulations dealing with that subject and private animal shelters needed more tweaking before they could be put into place.
While conducting a first public hearing on the idea of adding private animal shelters to the PS-2 (private services) zoning district as a conditional use, commissioners decided they didn’t have enough information to take a realistic look at the proposal, and sent it back to staff for more work.
“I’m nowhere near ready to make any decisions,” said Commissioner Diane Hutchings. “I don’t feel educated enough to even know if this is what I want.”
The subject came about after the planning staff was approached by the Animal Rescue Movement Inc., a nonprofit 501(c) 3 corporation that currently operates a private animal shelter at 5744 Maverick Rd. in Middleburg, said Chad Williams, zoning chief for the county. The group wanted to know what zoning district would be appropriate for such shelters because currently they didn’t really fall into any particular zoning district, he said. They are currently on property zoned AR (agricultural residential).
Staff determined the best place to allow for private animal shelters would be the PS-2 zoning district.
“This will allow for the necessary regulation of the activity and would also offer due public notice to surrounding neighbors as proposed properties would be required to be rezoned even if currently zoned PS-2,” Williams said in a memo originally sent to the Planning Commission before it took up the subject at its Dec. 5 meeting.
At that meeting, the Planning Commission approved the PS-2 proposal, and the idea of having a place for exotic animals to be rescued came up and was included in the proposal. But the exotic animal issue took a back seat to other sections of the proposed land use change when it came before the BCC.
County commissioners, who all made clear about their concern and care for animals in need of help, were not happy with many parts of the proposed ordinance or the idea that it seemed too “site specific” toward the applicant, the Animal Rescue Movement.
They were especially unhappy when they learned – only during the meeting – that the group had been cited for code enforcement problems. In addition, they also found out late that a lawsuit was involved between ARM and surrounding neighbors.
“We weren’t told about it. That’s what frosts me,” said Commissioner Wayne Bolla. “I’d like to know why I got a cold call from an attorney last night to tell me about a suit that was involved in something I had to look at the next day without anybody telling me about it ahead of time.”
Courtney Grimm, county attorney, said the county had nothing to do with the suit, and that the lawsuit would have come out when the actual rezoning request from ARM was heard. In the meantime, however, what was being dealt with was the land use regulation change.
“I think that it’s because this is not something that’s supposed to be property specific,” she said, referring to ARM.
As far as the code enforcement issues, the county magistrate has given Animal Rescue Movement until February to work out the issue because “they knew there were a lot of things going on,” said Chereese Stewart, the director of economic development and services.
But commissioners still had trouble with the idea that the land use regulation change for the PS-2 conditional use zoning district had not even been passed by the BCC – and couldn’t be until a second public hearing would be held Jan. 9, 2018 – and yet Animal Rescue Movement had already applied to change to that zoning and appear before the Planning Commission Jan. 2, 2018.
“Something doesn’t feel right that we have an application for something we don’t allow on this piece of property and we’re trying to do an ordinance on top of it. It gives me a feeling of conflict of interest,” Hutchings said.
Commissioner Mike Cella agreed.
“It seems like we found a situation which didn’t fit the code we’ve been trying to administer as a county through our usual code enforcement and following code and now we’re back stepping to try to fit something to what’s already there despite the fact that the neighbors are obviously not happy and have hired an attorney to follow up with a lawsuit,” he said. “To me this seems like bad policy to be making a decision based on something that’s already there.”
Grimm said the Animal Rescue Movement rezoning application would be contingent on the BCC’s passing the ordinance. If the ordinance didn’t pass, the application would fail.
Attorneys for both ARM and the neighbors appeared at the meeting. Brian All, attorney for ARM, said there are currently many applications for commercial animal-related groups, but not for the nonprofits.
“What is absent is a nonprofit’s ability to instead of apply a commercial use provide a charitable or humane use for the treatment of these animals,” he said.
Private groups like Animal Rescue Movement do not allow the public on the premises. ARM has an agreement with PetSmart for adoptions in a public arena.
Stacy Considine, attorney for the surrounding neighbors on Maverick Road, said their lives had been “turned upside down” by the effects of having ARM being so nearby. He mentioned noise, dogs just dropped off at night when no one is in attendance that just begin to wander around as some of the problems.
Commissioner Gayward Hendry, who said he has worked with several animal rescue groups and is a strong believer in them, never the less said he saw too many issues still undecided on the proposed ordinance.
“I think there are too many questions that have been raised. There are a lot of good ideas here, some not so good, so that’s yet to be determined, and we can only determine that with further discourse with the staff,” Hendry said.