Cecil County Animal Law: Good Intentions Run a Costly Amok; Zoning Issues Ignored
After nearly two hours of testimony from 55 people at a public hearing Tuesday evening, the Cecil County Commissioners are set to finally make decisions on a three-year process to revise animal ordinances in the county—but they ruled out consideration of some of the most significant issues posed in the often difficult relationship between humans and animals in Cecil County.
As the hearing began, County Commissioners Board President James Mullin (R-1) declared that the panel would not entertain comments on “zoning” matters affecting animals. But one of the most contentious problems facing the county—noisy commercial kennels located in close proximity to residential areas and neighborhood businesses—is a direct product of flaws in the zoning code. And the Commissioners were warned several years ago about the problem and advised how to fix it, but have declined to act.
A previous new ordinance drafted by a multi-member task force was put out to a public hearing over a year ago and drew support from the local Cecil County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Inc. (CCSPCA) and many witnesses, with only two areas of major contention: sizes of outdoor kennels and zoning issues that had allowed a large commercial kennel to locate on Appleton Road in close proximity to residences and small businesses.
The County Commissioners sent the proposal back to what was left of the task force—virtually all of whose members had resigned after the lengthy and arduous process– to address those two issues. But instead, just one remaining member of the task force— Mindy Carletti, a Perryville veterinarian– along with an unappointed note-taker, Edie Crick, who has involved herself in the process— have spend the past year drafting their own overhaul of the ordinance that goes far beyond the task force proposals. Their proposals were sent out to the latest public hearing Tuesday night.
[SEE previous Cecil Times special report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2011/07/1432/
At the hearing, several commenters mentioned the potential costs of the proposed ordinance— to pet owners and county taxpayers— caused by multiple new mandates, fees and fines imposed on pet owners and oversight and inspection duties imposed on animal control authorities. Some of the newly proposed rules for inspection and licensing of kennel operations are modeled after new rules imposed by Pennsylvania, but in that state the kennel inspections are handled by and paid for by a state government agency—not a local county government.
Commenters at the Tuesday public hearing were about evenly divided between supporters and opponents of the revised ordinance, known as “section 209” of the county code. Supporters generally spoke briefly and in broad terms, such as “give a voice to the animals.” Opponents or critics cited specific provisions and detailed their concerns. The commissioners did not have the usual signup sheet for recording speakers’ names and hometowns. You can listen to the nearly two-hour hearing via audio posted on the county’s website, by clicking on the page’s hotlink labeled ‘link to audio”:
Multiple critics of the proposal focused on its new requirements for “health certificates” for out of state animals entering the county. Pennsylvania and Delaware residents who own weekend homes in the county could be subject to the rules, even though their pets are duly licensed on their home turf, and organizers of tourism-oriented animal events would be impacted. And “free to good home” pet offerings would now require a family to pay for a veterinarian-signed health certificate before adopting out a pet.
The proposed ordinance requires a veterinarian-signed “health certificate” for any animal “being given away” and for “any animal crossing the state line into Cecil County.” The proposal further states that “any animal found without the required certificate of health shall be impounded and quarantined” and the owner can be fined $500.
Chris Bannister, of North East, said he has Huskies and organizes one of the most successful “dry land” sled dog races on the East Coast, which is held at Fair Hill. The certificates mandate would effectively kill that event, which has brought 100 ‘teams’ of dogs—and their owners—to the area. “This race brings in significant revenues to the county,” he said. He also challenged new rules for “tethers” and said that knowledgeable pet parents could be fined because of rules that were “written poorly” and do not reflect proper handling of “sporting dogs.”
Several national dog groups have submitted reports to the County Commissioners, citing tourism dollars from animal sporting events such as dog shows and dog agility events that would no longer come to the county if the new mandates were enacted.
Some speakers at the hearing noted that many of the new rules would also apply to horses and would override the “freedom to farm” law that applies to animals such as horses on their own farms. A member of the Maryland Horse Council testified that horsemen were not consulted and cited three sections of the proposal that would impact the equine community.
Under section 606 of the proposal, “The owner of every animal shall be responsible for removal of the excreta deposited by animal(s) on public property, including walks, recreation areas or on private property other than that of the owner.” Fines range from $25 to $100. Will the Amish buggies in Cecilton and riders on trails at Fair Hill—which is a state-designated recreation area-- have to stop and scoop or face fines from the poop police? Who will pay for the policing of this rule?
While the potential of dog cops stationed at the state line to check for out of state animals’ health certificates or poop police might seem fanciful, the new ordinance sets up very real, and costly, new mandates on so-called “hobby kennels” -- for owners of 10 dogs-- that do not solve the problem of inhumane conditions for large scale commercial breeding kennels.
Multiple witnesses at the public hearing opposed the new “hobby kennel” designation and rules. The new rules (section 702) set up for the first time the category of a “hobby kennel” housing 10 dogs and would allow no more than two litters of puppies per year, mandate annual inspections of the home, filing of a mandatory two times a day “exercise plan” for the dogs, require that all dogs are micro-chipped, mandate pre-licensing inspection of the home, and require inspection of “any mother and puppies to assure good health and proper nutrition.” There are also fees ($50) for even applying for a “hobby kennel” license, annual kennel license fees ($50), and annual inspections, and each dog would have to have an individual dog license.
One witness noted that if a family had only two dogs, but they produced a litter of eight puppies that they planned to eventually give away to relatives, they would become subject to the “hobby kennel” licensing and inspection rules—and the ‘give away’ health certificate mandate.
The new law also, by definition, sets up disincentives for people to rescue animals or provide even temporary care to animals in need. It treats even temporary caretakers who are the “custodian” or who are “feeding or sheltering an animal for three or more consecutive days” as the “owner” and they are then subject to licensing, care and other rules.
Meanwhile, the proposal sets up for the first time an “animal care and control oversight commission” (ACCO) that would create a buffer between the elected county commissioners and the animal control agency—currently, the Cecil County SPCA, operating under an annual fee-for-services contract. The proposal states that the ACCO has no legal authority to “enforce laws” and its reviews of citizen complaints will “result solely in recommendations or referrals to appropriate agencies.”
But in Section 7, the provisions on the ACCO state that a kennel or pet shop license revocation for violations issued by the animal control law enforcement agency can be appealed to the ACCO, which will eventually make a decision, that will be referred “to Cecil County government who shall make a decision affirming or reversing the decision of” and then that decision may be appealed to the Circuit Court. Can you say delay, delay delay and legal costs, to defend the ACCO and county government?
One of the better provisions of the new 209 ordinance is its increase in the county-supported holding period for stray animals from the current five days to eight days. BUT that provision could cost taxpayers over $100,000 a year, according to data submitted by the CCSPCA last year. The county commissioners have frozen the payments to the CCSPCA for animal control services for the past five years, despite rising county population and rising numbers of strays and owner-released pets due to the economy.
Michael Halter, the pro-bono, volunteer attorney for the CCSPCA, testified Tuesday that many provisions of the new 209 proposal are unconstitutional—such as mandates to allow inspectors into a home without warrants—and the county could face lawsuits. He said he would insist on “indemnity” from the county for the CCSPCA for potential legal actions stemming from violation of citizens’ rights.
Finally, the unspoken—but crucial—issue at the hearing is the failure of county officials to modify the county zoning ordinance to address the problem of large scale commercial breeding kennels, including a few who have re-located to Cecil County in response to tougher regulations in Pennsylvania.
One Pennsylvania operation relocated to the Appleton Road area in Elkton to a roughly one-acre parcel zoned “business general” and set up a kennel adjacent to a group home for mentally handicapped people, across the road from a popular local restaurant, and near individual homes. Due to the current zoning rules, none of the local residents were informed in advance, the property was not posted, and there were no public hearings before the kennel moved in several years ago.
Several nearby residents of the kennel spoke at the hearing of their frustration with that kennel, and one neighbor has filed multiple complaints in District Court over chronic noise from the facility.
Cecil County State’s attorney E.D.E. “Ellis” Rollins told the county Commissioners several weeks ago that he could not prosecute noisy kennels when the zoning code allows them to be there in the first place. “Dogs bark,” he said. And the county must have realized that when they allowed commercial kennels in business zones close to local residents.
In fact, the current zoning law that Commissioner Mullin said Tuesday he did not want to address sets lax standards in heavily populated areas but tougher standards in rural areas.
The law demands that commercial kennels in the NAR and SAR (northern and southern agricultural zones) must be located on at least five acres and must obtain a “special exception” which requires a hearing at the planning commission and the Board of Appeals. Those rules enabled the CCSPCA, and local environmental groups, to block a proposed commercial kennel adjacent to the Bohemia River several years ago.
Cecil County Commissioners were warned of the problem several years ago and then-commissioners Mullin and Rebecca Demmler indicated at meetings that they agreed all zones should require a ‘special exception’ before a commercial kennel could be opened. The county planning director was tasked to pursue the issue as part of zoning code revisions related to the revised Comprehensive Plan that was adopted. But the changes were never made.
In contrast, at the recent insistence of current Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4) all medical clinics must now obtain a “special exception” permission as part of her efforts to limit methadone clinics in the county. Those clinics are open a few hours a day and do not make noise all night as do commercial kennels.
[DISCLOSURE: The editor of Cecil Times has adopted several pets from the Cecil County SPCA and in the past served as an unpaid volunteer board member.]