Ferrisburgh boards rule against animal rescuer

FERRISBURGH — Two Ferrisburgh boards have ruled against Sand Road dog rescuer Sheila McGregor, whose harboring of up to 30 dogs in her ranch home and attached garage over the years has generated complaints from neighbors about noise, odors and loose animals.
On Tuesday the Ferrisburgh Board of Health — which is the town’s selectboard acting in that capacity — imposed conditions on McGregor related to a rat infestation at her 2512 Sand Road property, conditions including that she must reduce the number of dogs she keeps at her home to five by the end of September.
On June 12 the Ferrisburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment upheld an April 17 notice of zoning violation issued to McGregor by zoning administrator Bonnie Barnes.
McGregor’s attorney, Lesley Deppman of Middlebury, indicated she would appeal both of those decisions.
Deppman said on Wednesday morning she had not yet been able to confer with McGregor, but it was “safe to say” she would also be appealing the Ferrisburgh Board of Health ruling to the State Board of Health before the 30-day deadline.
McGregor has maintained at public meetings there have been no rats on her property for months.
Deppman also confirmed that McGregor, whose rescue operation is called Heidi’s Haven, would be appealing the zoning board decision to Environmental Court within that 30-day window.
Deppman said that McGregor has already take steps to reduce the number of dogs at her home, and there were already fewer than the 22 cited as of April 17 in Tuesday’s report — although without consulting with McGregor, Deppman could not provide an exact up-to-date number.
“She’s not taking in new rescues, and she is actively looking for foster homes for dogs that are now in her care,” Deppman said.
McGregor’s attorney was also asked why McGregor would appeal the zoning violation notice to Environmental Court, a process that is expensive and typically takes about a year-and-a-half, if she intended to stop rescuing.
“As you’ve read in the Board of Health decision, the Board of Health is now limiting her to five dogs total,” Deppman said. “Certainly she could reduce operations, but that wouldn’t reduce her number to five.”  
The Tuesday, June 19, order was addressed from the “Selectboard and Local Board of Health” to both Sheila McGregor and her brother, James McGregor, who owns the home she occupies, which according to town records is 912 square feet with an attached garage plus attached and detached sheds on a little less than an acre.
Two other homes are close by, and the owners of those properties, Lauren and Ricky Fisher and Scott and Lisa Brace, have been Sheila McGregor’s most persistent critics.
The board of health order acknowledged that “Ms. McGregor’s efforts have produced a positive change in the situation in the property with respect to the presence of rats … compared to the conditions as initially found and reported in the (town health officer’s) Emergency Health Order” dated on April 10.
Those efforts included setting out bait traps; cleaning up much of the dog feces, which rats can use as a food source; cooperating with most of the steps recommended by pest control companies; cleaning most of debris away from interior and exterior walls; storing pet food in sealed containers; and taking steps to seal the garage and its attached room from rat infiltration.
But it also alleges areas in which McGregor has fallen short: old dog feces still on the property; failure to properly deploy rat bait boxes, including allowing dogs to move them and to use bait recommended by experts; failure to fully remove debris that can provide homes for rats and cover for their movements; and failure to allow inspectors to look inside her home, especially the basement, which “would be appropriate to ensure that basement is not a potential support to rats.”
And the board alleges the presence of so many dogs is an issue: “The Board finds that the number of dogs on the property is a direct cause of the rat infestation and that future infestations cannot reasonably be prevented unless the number of dogs is reduced to a manageable level.”
Issues cited are the ongoing volume of “fresh feces” and “supply of dog food, cat food and water” that is “regularly available” to rats around the property.
The board ordered McGregor to:
•  Retain a pest control firm and follow all its recommendations, including on bait selection; allow the town’s health officer or assistant health officer to attend all pest control visits to the property; and provide all pest control reports to the town.
•  Remove all old feces within 10 days and continue to do so promptly on an ongoing basis.
•  Keep all fence lines and interior and exterior walls clear of debris.
•  Wind down the rescue operation and reduce the number of dogs to five “personally owned” animals by Sept. 30. Any increase in the number of dogs would require approval by the town health officer.
The appeal of the order would mean a hearing “de novo,” according to the order. According to cornell.edu, when a judiciary body hears a case de novo, “it is deciding the issues without reference to any legal conclusion or assumption made by the previous court to hear the case.”
On the zoning question Barnes, the zoning administrator, ruled that the McGregor needed a conditional use permit because Heidi’s Haven rescue operation is a home occupation in a residential zoning district.
In a May 23 hearing in which the zoning board heard McGregor’s appeal of the violation notice she and Deppman maintained Heidi’s Haven is grandfathered based on more than 15 years of dog rescue work at the site. McGregor said Ferrisburgh was aware of the operation because her operation had interacted with the town’s animal control officer.
In upholding Barnes’ violation notice the board’s decision stated McGregor filed no dog licenses with the town before 2011, and that a report of 19 dogs at the home in 2007 appeared to be the first time the rescue operation came to the town’s attention.
Therefore, the board concluded in its “that the Notice of Violation was issued well within the 15 year statute of limitations.”
Deppman said the appeal will contest that point.
“It’s a grandfathered operation,” Deppman said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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