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Ferrisburgh investigates possible zoning violation at dog shelter

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Posted on December 19, 2013 |
By Zach Despart



FerrisburghHouse2447.jpg
THE FERRISBURGH ZONING administrator alleged in a letter that his house on Sand Road houses a dog kennel that is in violation with town zoning laws. Independent photo/Zach Despart

FERRISBURGH — Ferrisburgh town officials are investigating whether a dog kennel is operating out of a Sand Road residence, which would be a violation of the town’s zoning ordinance.

Dating back at least to 2007, the town has received numerous complaints about dogs barking at all hours and wandering onto neighboring property.

“Every day and night we listen to dogs barking,” neighbor Lisa Brace wrote in a complaint this past Sept. 18. “It is very loud and often sounds like they are fighting.”

Sheila McGregor, who lives at the address, says she is not violating the ordinances. She is president of Heidi’s Haven Rescue, a nonprofit corporation registered with the state of Vermont. According to tax records, the owner of the home is James M. McGregor of Hinesburg. It is unknown if the two are related.

Town zoning officials cited Sheila McGregor for a zoning violation in 2008, then withdrew the complaint after McGregor appealed.

All animal rescue operations in the state must be registered by the Agency of Agriculture. Dr. Kristin Haas, the state veterinarian, said that Heidi’s Haven Rescue has been registered since 2011. In order to be registered, a shelter must have nonprofit status, fill out an application and pass an on-site inspection, if there is an actual brick-and-mortar facility, Haas said.

At issue is whether or not the operation of the rescue shelter out of McGregor’s home constitutes a violation of town zoning statutes. The property, at 2512 Sand Road, is zoned RA-5, for rural and agricultural use. This zoning designation precludes commercial use, Ferrisburgh Zoning Administrator Ken Wheeling said.

In addition to zoning concerns, it is unclear how many dogs McGregor has in her care. Per town ordinance, owners must register all dogs with the town clerk and provide proof they have been vaccinated against rabies. These registrations are valid for one year.

According to town records, Sheila McGregor registered one dog in 2013, an 8-year-old female beagle. In 2012, McGregor registered a dozen dogs. Standing on Sand Road near the property Monday, at least three dogs could be heard barking in the fenced-in backyard on McGregor’s property.

In an email, McGregor consented to be interviewed, but attempts to reach her by phone were unsuccessful at press time.

Brace lives less than 100 feet from the McGregor property; a vacant dwelling separates the two lots. Brace operates a child daycare center out of her home, called Tots On The Go Family Childcare. Up to 12 children are present at her residence each day.

Brace said she is concerned for the safety of the children under her care because strange dogs have wandered onto her property. She first wrote to the Ferrisburgh selectboard in October 2007.

“I am not comfortable with strange dogs in my yard with the children,” Brace wrote. “I am simply asking that the dogs be up to date on all vaccinations, be registered with the town and be kept off my property.”

Town records indicate that officials investigated the compliant.

A week after Brace’s letter, selectboard chair Loretta Lawrence wrote a letter to Sheila McGregor, informing her that a complaint had been lodged against her and that according to town records, McGregor had not registered any dogs with the town clerk.

In a November 2007 letter to McGregor, then-zoning administrator Tom Mansfield stated that he visited McGregor’s property and that he believed a zoning violation had occurred.

“There is no record that you have ever applied for and received town approval to operate a kennel,” Mansfield wrote. “Since kennels are not permitted anywhere in Ferrisburgh without such town approval, your property is considered in non-compliance with town zoning bylaws and is subject to a Notice of Violation.”

The town filed a formal Notice of Zoning Violation on Jan. 11, 2008.

In February 2008, McGregor appealed the Notice of Violation and hired Huntington attorney Lisa Barrett to represent her. In a letter to Mansfield, Barrett said McGregor did not violate the ordinance, which defines a kennel as “An establishment for the breeding and boarding of six or more dogs.” Barrett said that McGregor did not breed dogs and provided unpaid foster care for fewer than six dogs at a time.

Several dog trainers wrote letters in support of McGregor, noting her experience in caring for dogs and finding homes for rescued animals.

After personally inspecting the McGregor property on March 13, 2008, Mansfield determined McGregor was not operating a kennel, according to a letter he wrote to McGregor. Mansfield rescinded the violation.

“I do not believe any of the dogs with whom I came into contact with pose any threat to neighbors, visitors or strangers,” Mansfield wrote in a memo to the selectboard. “Ms. McGregor was fully cooperative and imposed no limitations upon my inspection.”

The Independent could find no records detailing any formal complaints against McGregor from 2009-2012. Lawrence said the selectboard decided to reopen the investigation into a possible zoning violation at the McGregor residence after Scott and Lisa Brace raised the issue at the Nov. 19 selectboard meeting.

Selectboard member James Warden said the town wants to ensure that zoning regulations are followed, and residents are kept safe.

“Dogs are running loose and are out of control — that’s the problem,” Warden said in an interview. “Nobody is against her saving animals, but is that location the right place to do it?”

In 2013, at least four complaints against McGregor were filed with town animal control officer Jaimeelyn Gaboriault. Three complaints were made by Lisa Brace, and another was filed by Sarah Bezon, a parent of one of the children at Brace’s daycare. In total, the complaints detail 10 separate incidents between May and October of excessive barking, or dogs entering Brace’s property.

“There was a dog in my driveway when parents were dropping off their children,” Brace wrote Sept. 18 about a May 2 incident. “It was around their cars, not sure if it was safe.”

When reached for comment, Gaboriault declined to speak to the specifics of the McGregor case, though a report written by her indicated that she inspected McGregor’s property on Oct. 20.

Records also indicate that Gaboriault on several occasions picked up stray dogs from Brace’s property and took them to Homeward Bound Animal Welfare Center in Middlebury.

A document from the Homeward Bound shelter stated that on Nov. 4, Sheila McGregor picked up two dogs that had been lodged there, paying a $100 fee for each.

Homeward Bound Executive Director Jessica Daynow visited McGregor’s property this past Aug. 8. Daynow was not there to conduct an inspection, but rather to meet McGregor.

On Tuesday, Daynow said that while on the premises that day, she saw around 20 dogs, and that there were around a dozen plastic dog crates stacked in the living area of the house.

“There were more dogs there than can be adequately spaced,” Daynow said. “In contrast, Homeward Bound only has 16 kennels, and a staff of 8-10 to take care of the dogs.”

In an interview Monday, Brace said she hopes McGregor’s dog rescue operation is shut down.

“It has been an ongoing roller coaster,” Brace said. “I can’t afford the liability.”

Despite being neighbors for more than a decade, Brace said she has had limited interactions with McGregor.

“I have maybe spoken to her twice,” Brace said.

Brace said that she fears for the safety of the children under her care, because of the strange dogs that have wandered onto her property. She added that she hopes the town will take action.

“I think the issue (town officials) are having is that there’s not anybody to enforce the laws in this town,” Brace said. “We have all these zoning laws, but it doesn’t seem like there’s anyone enforcing them.”

Again, town officials are investigating whether McGregor has violated zoning ordinances. Selectboard chair Lawrence on Nov. 27 emailed Ken Wheeling, the current town zoning administrator, and instructed him to investigate the matter.

“It appears that (McGregor) is operating a kennel/business for profit,” Lawrence wrote. “The select board believes, very strongly, that there is justification for the zoning violation notice.”

Wheeling on Dec. 2 sent a letter to both Sheila and James McGregor, detailing the allegations.

“There is current proof that (Sheila McGregor) has sold a dog(s) and is operating an illegal operation,” Wheeling wrote. “A number of dogs have not been registered, which is a health hazard in itself.”

McGregor responded with a letter of her own, a copy of which she emailed to the Independent.

In it, McGregor said she would register all her dogs with the town in 2014. She rejected the town’s claim that she is selling dogs.

“I don’t ‘sell’ dogs, (…) the money goes into a bank account for a nonprofit organization that is registered with both state and federal governments,” McGregor wrote.

A Heidi’s Haven Rescue adoption agreement dated May 12 and signed by McGregor indicates that Heidi’s Haven Rescue received a $275 “adoption fee” for transferring ownership of a dog to Jeannette Ringer of North Ferrisburgh.

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