PALM HARBOR — For weeks, county commissioners received hundreds of emails and more than 1,000 signatures in favor of keeping a dog rescue shelter open.
People shared stories of their adoptions from the shelter and spoke about how the owners only wanted to help small dogs who couldn't be cared for anymore.
But the commissioners also received more than a dozen emails from neighbors around the shelter, saying the dogs were noisy, that they disturbed the character of the residential neighborhood and that people constantly coming and going was bothersome. One neighbor said she installed $30,000 sound-proof windows because "the constant noise was excruciating."
Canine Estates, a non-profit that started in 2012, does adoptions out of its office on Alt. U.S. 19, but its shelter operates in a single-family home off Alderman Road zoned for residential and agricultural use, not a commercial business.
In June, the shelter faced the Board of Adjustments and Appeals to ask for permission to continue the business on the property. County officials denied it. Now, Jayne Sidwell, one of the owners of the shelter, is suing the county. If she loses, Canine Estates will have to find a new home for the dogs. Their kennel takes in mainly small, older or medically needy dogs who can't be cared for by their family anymore.According to court records, they take in a maximum of 25 dogs weighing 25 pounds or less.
Pinellas County Animal Services, which worked with the shelter and gave them smaller old dogs that came into the shelter, has offered to help with any needed dog relocation efforts.
A business like a shelter would be allowed on residential and agricultural property with an approved application, said Blake Lyon, the director of Pinellas County Building and Development Review Services.
"Unfortunately they opened up the facility prior to doing that," he said.
That left the group the option of either closing or going to a public hearing.
Through her lawyer, Sidwell said she and her sister Sybil Freeman, who helps run the rescue, wanted to start a shelter inspired by their mother's love for helping animals. Rick Snyder, a neighbor, said he doesn't have issues with dogs. Instead it has to do with the neighborhood's rural character. In 2006, neighbors banded together to get zoning from the county that restricts building density and instead leaves large, wooded lots for each home.
Snyder said Sidwell should move the property to another zoned for that kind of business.
"The thought that somebody can come in and buy a piece of property next door to me and do whatever they want with it, and snub their nose at the county and not be considerate of the neighbors, of people next door, doesn't sit well," he said.
Sidwell's suit, filed last month, argues that the complaints of neighbors are unsubstantiated and that the board's decision was made to "appease a large crowd of opponents led by a neighbor with a vendetta against the Sidwells."
A noise expert monitored the property and found no sound exceeding the allowed residential limit, according to the petition. It also claims that only volunteers were allowed to the shelter, not random visitors, and that any animal droppings were picked up immediately. It also says that because the lots are large, the building is hundreds of feet away from neighboring homes.
Sidwell's lawsuit argues that the shelter does match the neighborhood's rural character. Because the land is also zoned for agricultural use, which allows for a variety of animals, having dogs on the property is a "baked-in" aspect of living in the area, it says.
The shelter appears on the outside like any other single-family home, the lawsuit argues.
"As such, it (is) just a house where someone lives with some dogs," the complaint reads.
But neighbors, in their complaints to the county before the hearing, worried that allowing the shelter would not only continue to disturb them but also open the door for other businesses and disturb the quiet, wooded escape they bought houses for.
"We used to be able to have morning coffee on our back porch, enjoying the quietude of our special neighborhood," said an email to the county from neighbors Andrew and Judith Gellady. "The incessant dog barking has driven us inside."
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