Ferrisburgh looks to help neighbors of dog rescuer

FERRISBURGH — With at least 30 residents watching, the Ferrisburgh selectboard on Tuesday talked about three different approaches to handle longstanding neighborhood complaints about a Sand Road dog rescue operation that currently houses not only about 30 dogs and 10 cats, but now has a rat infestation.
At issue is 2512 Sand Road, at which Sheila McGregor, 53, runs Heidi’s Haven dog rescue. McGregor says she finds homes for about 50 or 60 dogs a year that she saves from high-kill shelters, and her operation has been endorsed by clients and others in the rescue community.
But not by her neighbors, who have complained for years about noise, odors and loose dogs, and more recently the rats that her closest neighbors say have started to chew on and even burrow into their home.
In June 2011 McGregor was cited into court for animal cruelty for unsanitary conditions at her property, although those charges were dropped that October. In 2008 and 2013, Ferrisburgh explored zoning violations against Heidi’s Haven, but each time the town backed off, in part because the rescue operation was regulated by the state.
But as of 2016 the Agency of Agriculture no longer oversees shelters and rescue operations, putting the ball in the town’s court. On March 6 new selectboard Chairman Rick Ebel told McGregor that town officials would respond to neighbors’ complaints. This Tuesday he re-enforced that message.
“It’s admirable what you’re doing, but you’re hearing from your neighbors and now the town that what you’re doing is detrimental to humans,” Ebel said.
At the March 20 meeting:
•  Ferrisburgh zoning administrator Bonnie Barnes said Heidi’s Haven was a home occupation that required a conditional-use zoning permit. That permit process would require the Ferrisburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment to hold public hearings and would allow the board to attach conditions to a potential permit based on impact on a small neighborhood that includes two homes close to McGregor’s.
•  Town health and animal control officer Jamieelynn Gaboriault said McGregor had a March 27 deadline to present a professional plan to rid her and her neighbors’ properties of rats. Gaboriault and selectboard members at the meeting said they were not satisfied with McGregor’s response to Gaboriault’s February letter giving McGregor 30 days to produce a plan.
•  Ebel said the selectboard would review the town’s existing dog laws with an eye toward determining how many dogs were appropriate for the sizes of homes and lots in town. Ebel said the topic would be on the agenda for the board’s next meeting.
Barnes said her research concluded McGregor’s operation, even though a registered nonprofit, constituted a home occupation that required a conditional use permit.
Barnes said McGregor devotes time, resources and space on her property to Heidi’s Haven.
“Your rescue operation is also a home occupation,” Barnes said. “It is something that you’re good at and you care about.”
After McGregor agreed with that characterization, Barnes continued.
“We need you to apply for a home occupation permit,” she said. “We’d like this to happen relatively speedily.”
Gaboriault added the deadline to get on the May zoning board agenda was April 12.
Ebel confirmed on Wednesday that if McGregor fails to apply Barnes will issue her a notice of zoning violation as a non-complying use in a residential district.
Barnes said conditional-use permits require public hearings at which neighbors can make suggestions for conditions that can then be imposed if the zoning board then grants a permit.
McGregor defended her operation, stating that her dogs only get loose three or four times a year and that her neighbors’ dogs often run free, to which one neighbor responded with an epithet that translates as “Nonsense.”
McGregor added that, “Dogs get loose all over Ferrisburgh,” and, “We do everything we can to keep our dogs safe and on our property.”
Ebel said McGregor’s remarks were not relevant.
“We as a town are stating operations like dog rescues will be considered as home occupations,” Ebel said. “As such you have to apply for a home occupation permit.”
Barnes said that the permit hearing could include a site visit, which could be requested by residents or the board itself.
The discussion of rats began with a review of a scheduled March 10 visit of a pest control company to 2512 Sand Road, a visit that had been understood to be between the company and McGregor and to include a review of Lauren and Ricky Fisher’s home next door.
Lauren Fisher said McGregor didn’t show, although her husband did, while Fisher and her husband stayed at home waiting for a visit that did not come.
“They never came to my house,” Fisher said.
McGregor said she had a prior engagement and asked her husband to fill in, but that he did not understand in advance of the commitment to visit the Fishers’ property.
“I texted him and asked him to have them go next door,” she said. “He said the guy didn’t have time.”
Ebel said he was not satisfied with her effort.
“It really falls short given the gravity of the situation,” he said.
Gaboriault asked McGregor if she had “put a plan in motion” and told her, “I need the official report.”
McGregor said she didn’t have a report, but rather a contract to sign in which the company would come in and do the things that were discussed this past Saturday, which she then described.
McGregor said one section of the garage that had no food or nesting material would be closed off completely, and the garage door would be either repaired or replaced to bar access to the garage to rats. She added she was debating what bait to use in traps with company employees, but that the bait she wanted to use was on a list of products on the company website. She added her cats were also making a dent in the problem.
Her response did not sit well with Selectman Jim Benoit.
“You’ve had a professional exterminator, and now you’re telling them how to do their job,” Benoit said.
McGregor then addressed the Fishers, telling them she worried putting bait and traps on their property might just lure more rats to their home, but that she would cooperate with that approach if they wanted.
“I’m happy to buy bait boxes and bait for the property,” she said.
Lauren Fisher declined.
“I’d prefer something from the exterminator company,” she said.
An upset Benoit again addressed McGregor.
“Enough is enough. What is it going to take to get you to do the right thing?” he said. “You need to get an exterminator to take care of this problem.”
Gaboriault said the March 27 deadline to provide a full professional plan was looming, after which she would involve state officials.
“You have to have a professional treat this,” Gaboriault said. “This needs to be done by March 27. Otherwise we need to escalate it to the next step.”
Ebel said the review of the town’s dog law would rely in part on an 80-page Vermont League of Cities and Towns booklet, “The Big Book of Woof,” in which the VLCT outlines all manner of dog laws and issues it has gleaned from serving communities around the state.
The review, which will include public hearings before any changes, will look at whether language dealing with dog shelters and rescue operations and conditions attached to them can be included within existing sections or whether an expansion is necessary.
“If we need to add another section, we’ll add another section,” Ebel said.
Conditions could include per-animal limitations on square footage and acreage.
“Thirty dogs in a 1,000-square foot ranch home doesn’t seem to fit, but we don’t have any guidelines,” Ebel said.

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