Seneca Co. SPCA at risk due to local zoning laws

Since 2003, the Seneca County SPCA has rescued and sheltered hundreds of dogs, providing them safe homes, and even assisting county officials and local law enforcement investigating animal cruelty cases.Now, however, the organization’s mission-and the dogs it shelters-may be at risk from town and county zoning officials.SPCA President Jenny McWhorter has been operating a non-profit dog rescue organization on property she shares with her partner Stephen Webb for nearly six years. Until recently, local zoning officials told her the operation was in compliance with local zoning laws.But on March 12, they were served with a violation notice by the Seneca County Building Department. That notice alleged that the SPCA was in violation of the Town of Fayette Zoning Code. The building department claims that the not-for-profit shelter is a “commercial kennel” under the new zoning code.That zoning code was passed last fall. Because McWhorter had operated the shelter for years before that, she believes that the SPCA is grandfathered in (and, therefore, legal) under New York State law.And, until recently, she thought that local officials agreed. But in November, 2008, the Chair of the Fayette Planning Board, Ros Parks, told McWhorter that the shelter was in violation of both the new and old zoning law. He also told her that his board would most likely deny the SPCA a permit or variance if they requested one.That surprised McWhorter. Parks had told her in 2003 that she didn’t need any town permits for the shelter.“Ros stated to me that we did not need a kennel permit. All that was available was a purebred kennel permit and we both agreed we did not fit those criteria as many of our rescue dogs were mixed breeds,” McWhorter said. “Ros told me that as long as there were no complaints we were fine doing what we were doing here.”In 2005, the group was told that the town wanted dogs kept at the shelter for more than thirty days to be licensed. McWhorter said she complied. Other than that request, she heard nothing from the planning board until 2008, shortly after the group was formally designated by New York State as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals (SPCA) for Seneca County.“We have not had any complaints from our neighbors or incidents with our dogs since 2003 to the present time,” McWhorter said. “We take extreme measures to assure we do not bother anyone and keep the dogs waste picked up and disposed of properly daily, every day.”McWhorter said that the SPCA has contacted former Seneca County Attorney Steven Getman, who has agreed to assist the shelter on a pro bono basis. Getman hopes to show local officials that the SPCA is operating legally.If zoning officials force the SPCA to move, McWhorter said they will do what they can to comply with the law. However, relocating so would mean a big financial hit for the shelter and compromise its mission.“It will be costly for us to try at this time to open a separate shelter for the animals off of our property,” McWhorter said. “We operate the non-profit corporation solely on donations and receive no public money.”“By operating here we can keep our overhead low and continue to provide animal protective services until we become more established and self-supporting.”“Making the shelter move now could endanger both the SPCA’s goals and the animals it serves.”

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