Ferrisburgh dog rescuer faces sanctions; witness brings rat to selectboard meeting
FERRISBURGH — As voices grew louder and one Sand Road neighbor accused another of lying at the April 3 Ferrisburgh selectboard meeting, Board Chairman Rick Ebel had already warned that he would call a recess to calm things down before another resident held up a dead rat in a freezer bag.
At that point Ebel — and probably many of the 30 residents at the meeting— had seen enough.
He called a five-minute recess in the portion of the meeting dedicated to the long-running dispute between Sheila McGregor, the operator of Heidi’s Haven, a dog rescue operation in a small ranch home at 2512 Sand Road, and her neighbors.
In the kind of small-town dispute that can fester if not dealt with, neighbors have complained for years that the 30 or more dogs McGregor has harbored have made their lives miserable by barking at all hours, creating excessive smells, and at times running onto their properties.
And now there is a rat infestation that the Ferrisburgh health officer has ordered McGregor to deal with and has spread onto neighboring properties, according to a recent town inspection and neighbors’ complaints.
On Friday, April 6, Ebel said the town would issue an emergency health order to McGregor later that day laying out how she should deal with the rat infestation, an order that by law will trigger a “quasi-judicial” hearing within five days of her being served. A hearing could be held as soon as Tuesday, with the members of the selectboard taking testimony as the town board of health.
Witnesses could include McGregor, neighbors, and Ferrisburgh Health and Animal Control Officer Jamieelynn Gaboriault and Town Constable Jeff Warden, both of whom recently inspected the property and evaluated McGregor’s efforts to deal with the rat infestation.
Gaboriault sent McGregor a Feb. 27 letter with a March 27 deadline to come up with a professional plan to exterminate the rats, and town officials said she has not complied.
“Even though it sounds like there have been some efforts, certainly the communication back is they haven’t been adequate,” Ebel said last Wednesday.
On Friday, Ebel said the emergency health order would be specific. McGregor has said she has been reluctant to poison the rats because of the threat to the dogs on her property (at the meeting she put the number at 22), and on Tuesday said she was also worried about the neighbors’ dogs.
At the meeting board members said to let her neighbors worry about their pets and to get serious about the rats.
“Find a place to put the 22 dogs, and get rid of the rats,” said Selectman Jim Benoit. “Move the dogs.”
The order will require her to do so, Ebel said Friday.
“We’re going to order her to get the dogs out so that the proper extermination can occur, and there will be a time frame on that,” he said.
Ebel hopes McGregor will cooperate.
“We may find out by Tuesday a lot has been done,” he said. “Hopefully this gets resolved, because if we have to go through the courts we will.”
At the meeting McGregor said she felt singled out because other properties, including an abandoned home nearby, are also likely infested by rats.
“Probably I’m not the only person in Ferrisburgh to have rats on their property,” she said.
McGregor and her husband said they had put out bait traps, worked to seal her garage and an attached shed from rats, used cats to kill rats in the garage, placed all the food for the animals in her care into closed containers, and had purchased “smoke bombs” to kill rats, but had not yet used them.
She said those steps were recommended by two pest-control companies that had visited the property, one in late March and one more recently, along with Jeff Warden and Gaboriault to evaluate the situation.
“We’ve been working on it,” McGregor said, adding, “we haven’t had a rat get into our food supply” in recent weeks.
That statement prompted neighbor Ricky Fisher to produce the dead rat, which he said he had found along the fence line that separates his property from McGregor’s.
“We live with this every day,” said Fisher, who held the bagged rat high and walked up through the crowd to the front of the room.
It was then that Ebel called a recess.
“It’s not going on like this. No way,” he said.
Later in the meeting McGregor also clashed with Lauren Fisher, Ricky Fisher’s wife. She said McGregor had promised the selectboard she would buy bait traps for their property and would have the pest control company that came to Sand Road in March come up with an extermination plan for her property. Neither promise was kept, she said.
“That was before you went on a scandal and smear campaign,” McGregor responded, drawing another warning from Ebel.
Constable Warden said he found no rat feces in the home and saw evidence steps had been taken, but that a back shed had not been addressed and he had found signs of rats on McGregor’s and neighboring properties.
Selectmen Red Muir, speaking via computer from elsewhere, had the last word on the infestation.
“Get the exterminator in, get a quote, and get rid of the rats,” he said.
The selectboard devoted almost 90 minutes to Heidi’s Haven last Tuesday. The situation has generated complaints for more than a decade, and now Ferrisburgh is acting on several fronts that board members said could prevent such issues from cropping up in the future.
Back in 2007, a town notice of zoning violation was issued and then retracted when McGregor appealed. In 2013, another zoning administrator looked into Heidi’s Haven, but did not issue a violation notice, apparently because the Agency of Agriculture at that point oversaw such operations.
In Sept. 2010, the Addison County Humane Society and Vermont State Police acted on an animal cruelty complaint at Heidi’s Haven, and charges were filed in June 2011. They were dropped in October 2011 after McGregor complied with conditions of release limiting the number dogs at the site. In court documents she and other rescuers who supported McGregor blamed the unsanitary conditions found on the property on the mental issues of a tenant.
In October 2011, Heidi’s Haven obtained its “Pet Merchant License” from the Agency of Agriculture, but that oversight ended in 2016 after legislative action.
Without that oversight, current Ferrisburgh zoning administrator Bonnie Barnes concluded that Heidi’s Haven is a home occupation in a residential district, and thus requires a conditional use permit. McGregor has until Wednesday to apply for that permit according to a letter Barnes wrote to her in March.
At the meeting McGregor said she had not applied because she had decided to stop rescuing after more than 35 years.
“I’m sure everybody will be happy to know we will no longer be saving lives,” she said.
She said it was a difficult decision because she stated — accurately — that unlike the Addison County Humane Society, which does not euthanize animals, many Southern shelters are “high-kill” operations.
She then passed out two pictures, one of which showed a hallway of dead dogs from one such shelter.
Lauren Fisher said McGregor was missing the point.
“I’ve never said you have had bad intentions. Nobody ever asked you to stop rescuing,” Fisher said.
“You’re not being faulted for the good work you’re doing with the dogs,” he said. “It’s the impact on the neighbors.”
On Wednesday, Ebel said if McGregor did not follow through with a zoning application Barnes would issue a notice of zoning violation.
In an effort to put in place zoning rules that could handle future complaints, Ebel also said the selectboard will ask the planning commission to look into whether the town’s noise and odor zoning provisions are strong enough, and whether provisions could be added that would create limits on the number of dogs property owners could have based on the size of their properties and structures.
The board also agreed to amend its dog law to include “rescue operations and nonprofits” as legal dog owners, a change that will allow them to enforce provisions of the ordinance — such as noise and licensing — on concerns such as Heidi’s Haven.
According to Ebel, that process will include two hearings on the amendment at selectboard meetings, one each in May and June, before it can take effect, probably in late July.
Ebel said the ordinance is not just about protecting neighbors.
“It’s about ownership of the dog, and being clear about that ownership,” he said. “It’s about protection of the dogs, too.”
Muir said offenders of provisions of the ordinance, including noise and loose dogs, have never been ticketed.
“Our dog ordinance is a pretty stout dog ordinance,” he said. “I believe our constable can write up violations given the ordinances, and if this isn’t taken care of they can go to the state of Vermont, and it’s something the state of Vermont can take care of.”
The board called McGregor to the table to discuss the issue. She said complaints were overblown. She showed the selectboard a picture of the dog that Lauren Fisher said had come onto her property and threatened her family. McGregor described it as 15 pounds with deformed hind legs and unlikely to pose a threat.
“It growled at us,” said Fisher, nearby in the front row.
McGregor turned and faced Fisher.
“Or maybe you lie,” she said.
That was when Ebel, a former school principal, for the first time in his new role as a selectboard chairman, started talking about recess.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
MIDDLEBURY — Bernard D. Kimball, 76, passed away in Bennington Hospital on Jan. 10, 2023. … (read more)
The Fresh Air Fund, initiated in 1877 to give kids from New York City the opportunity to e … (read more)