Ferrisburgh neighbor issue still a challenge; hearing on rats, dog rescuer continued
FERRISBURGH — Acting as the town’s board of health, the Ferrisburgh selectboard on May 8 considered a rat infestation at the Sand Road home of a dog rescuer.
While they came to no decision before continuing the hearing until May 29, board members did not rule out imposing sanctions in what appears to be an increasingly difficult situation for town officials.
“The board understands there may be other avenues to pursue,” said Selectboard Chairman Rick Ebel.
He said fines and civil court action are possibilities if the board of health is not satisfied with the progress made by Sheila McGregor, who operates Heidi’s Haven dog rescue at 2512 Sand Road, to rid her and a neighbor’s property of a rat infestation.
McGregor has hired Middlebury attorney Lesley Deppman and is contesting the town’s assertion that her dog rescue operation does not conform to Ferrisburgh zoning. She and board members did not fully see eye-to-eye on all the issues raised at the May 8 hearing.
Specifically, the town’s notice of zoning violation calls Heidi’s Haven a home occupation that requires a conditional use permit. If that designation is enforced it would give the town the right to impose conditions on McGregor that could limit the number of her dogs. Neighbors have for years complained that the 30 or more dogs have created noise and odors and sometimes gotten loose.
McGregor initially told the selectboard this spring that the zoning violation notice was not necessary because she would stop rescuing. McGregor’s attorney last week described the grounds upon which McGregor is appealing it.
“The issue is the statue of limitations has expired,” Deppman said. “She’s been in operation for over 15 years.”
McGregor has during those years run Heidi’s Haven out of a 912-square-foot ranch home with an attached garage. Ferrisburgh officials not only cited McGregor for the zoning violation and ordered her to appear before the board of health to answer for the rat infestation, but also changed town dog laws to make rescue operations owners of the dogs they foster.
This is not the first time McGregor has said she would stop rescuing dogs. In 2011 McGregor was investigated by Vermont State Police Trooper Cathy Cappetta for animal cruelty; charges were dropped that July, in part because McGregor reduced the number of animals on the property to comply with court conditions.
In Addison Superior Court documents Cappetta wrote that McGregor told her she was “done rescuing as she may have taken on too much.” That October McGregor obtained a Pet Merchant License from the Agency of Agriculture.
This past Tuesday’s Ferrisburgh Board of Health hearing continuation also called for two inspections of the property to be conducted by Ferrisburgh Health Officer Jamieelynn Gaboriault and either the town constable or a sheriff’s deputy.
One of those inspections will be done along with the pest-control company hired by McGregor, who has reduced the dogs on her property to 20, along with 10 cats. Both sides hope a member of the Vermont Board of Health can also attend.
Gaboriault — who like McGregor was accompanied by an attorney at the hearing — said her May 4 inspection found McGregor and her husband had made progress in sealing the garage and an attached shed from rats, covering the pet food that apparently attracted the rats, and cleaning dog feces from the yard on the roughly 1-acre parcel.
But Gaboriault also listed concerns, including items inside and out that could harbor rats; unfinished work to seal the property’s interior; “visible (dog) feces around, old and new” in the yard; no work to seal an outdoor shed; open food and cat litter containers; and evidence of rats on McGregor’s and a neighboring property owned by Lauren and Ricky Fisher.
Gaboriault said given the number of dogs and cats, the volume of pet food and dog feces (also a rat food source) would be “hard to control.” She was also concerned about “the speed of which this is being undertaken,” and said McGregor refused to use the poison in the bait traps the pest-control company recommended, instead insisting on one with which a company worker was not familiar.
McGregor said since the inspection many items had been moved, and that more work on the garage had been done and produced pictures to show the progress. McGregor agreed the shed had not yet been dealt with, citing “standing water” in the yard from recent heavy rain.
McGregor said she has a new offsite home for composted feces and takes non-composted feces to a Burlington landfill; the open food was for cats that roam free, including two that help kill rats; and that the pest-control company’s office and branch managers were familiar with the poison she had chosen.
In an email to the Independent McGregor said two cats roaming in her garage and attached shed had eliminated the rat problem, and she provided articles about how well cats can control rats.
“We cleaned the garage and installed two effective feline hunters and our rat problem was solved. No rats, rat waste, or rat damage for months,” McGregor wrote.
In a follow-up email McGregor added, “The rat issue appears to be a town wide problem, as Jaimeelyn Gaboriault told me in conducting her inspection in February that she has seen rats at her property this year, and I understand from others in town that they too have had rat issues.”
Ebel on Thursday said questions remained unresolved. For instance, he said that although McGregor stated pest-control firm managers were familiar with the poison she chose, she did not say they approved of it.
Also, neighbors shared with town officials and the Independent a Facebook post in which McGregor acknowledged the dogs on her property have moved around and urinated on the bait boxes left by the company.
“There is that question of her interfering or intervening with the professionals,” Ebel said.
At the meeting, neighbor Lauren Fisher said rats had done $8,880 of damage to her property and alleged new rat droppings in her yard. She claimed contrary to McGregor’s promise to the town to stop rescuing “there are eight new dogs listed that were not on last week’s page.”
At the hearing Gaboriault and McGregor agreed there were 20 dogs at the home as of May 8, but Fisher said on the online site Petfinder McGregor is offering 22 dogs for adoption.
McGregor said the dogs are at foster homes, but neighbors said they were skeptical McGregor is backing off rescuing, including Debbie Brace, mother of neighbor Scott Brace.
“She’s still fully functional,” Debbie Brace said. “She’s still functioning as a dog rescue.”
McGregor confirmed in an email that dogs not at her home were in foster homes, but did not answer the specific question, “When was the last time you accepted a dog for rescue?”
McGregor also told the selectboard this spring she could not afford to put dogs in kennels and requested to work with a pest-control firm that would allow the dogs to stay at her home, a condition to which the the board agreed.
Fisher claimed that McGregor refused an offer from Homeward Bound, the Addison County Humane Society in Middlebury, to take in some of her dogs at no charge.
Ebel at the May 8 meeting asked if Homeward Bound had reached out.
“Not that I know of,” McGregor said, adding, “I’m much more comfortable working with the rescuers I always work with.”
Board member Jim Benoit asked if McGregor was uncomfortable with Homeward Bound.
“I don’t know anything about them,” McGregor said.
Homeward Bound Executive Director Jess Danyow told the Independent she sent a Facebook message to McGregor on April 11, but had not heard back. The Heidi’s Haven Facebook page reads “typically replies within a few hours” to a message.
Homeward Bound was involved in the 2011 animal cruelty investigation and in a 2013 investigation into a dog custody dispute involving McGregor.
Danyow also said McGregor had come to Homeward Bound five times between August 2013 and July 2015 to reclaim dogs that had wandered off her property and had been turned into Homeward Bound.
Asked to clarify her remarks on Homeward Bound, McGregor responded in an email, “I am not familiar with Homeward Bound policies or procedures for adoption.”
In the Thursday phone interview Ebel said his aim was to find a solution everybody could live with.
“My perspective on this whole matter is I’m hoping we can come to resolution soon that all sides will respect and we can move forward in building our community,” he said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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