Township seeks halt in residential animal shelter operation

By: Brad D. Bates | Shelby - Utica News | Published February 20, 2013

SHELBY TOWNSHIP — Shelby Township is going to the dogs, as long as it’s in an area zoned for heavy manufacturing.

Township Code Enforcement Officer Richard Zavislak issued a letter to Kelley LaBonty, who owns and operates the Detroit Animal Welfare Group, Feb. 7 requesting that she remove all but her “four personal licensed dogs” from her home within 10 days.

Zavislak said he issued the letter to LaBonty, who has one of several foster homes for animals under the care of her shelter, following a complaint from a neighbor about the number of dogs she had in her home.

“I am requesting that you remove all but your four personal licensed dogs from the premises and cease taking in any other animals,” the letter from Zavislak to LaBonty reads.

“Should you disregard this notice and continue to run the rescue operation from your home, a formal complaint will be filed with the township attorney for action to compel compliance.”

Zavislak said, because she had more than two dogs, her home fit the township’s definition of a kennel, which may only be operated in an area zoned for heavy manufacturing.

LaBonty said she was surprised by the letter because she said, in a previous meeting with Zavislak, she was told there was no limit on the number of animals she could keep in her home, as long as they were properly cared for, stayed on her property and did not violate the township’s noise ordinance.

“We met with Richard (Zavislak) in 2011, and he said that, as long as the animals are well cared for, and there’s a noise ordinance for barking over one hour without a 10 minute break,” LaBonty said of a meeting prior to opening her shelter.

Zavislak said he did not recall a meeting with LaBonty where he outlined the do’s and don’ts for operating a shelter or fostering dogs in a residential zone, but said he believes the nature of zoning and code ordinances can make it difficult to ascertain what is allowed and what is not.

“You have to look at it a number of different ways to find all of it,” Zavislak said. “Some have a little part here, some have a little part there.“

The township has a specific portion of its zoning ordinance that applies to parcels that are zoned single-family residential that allows for “non-vicious dogs, cats or other household pets” to be housed.

That portion of the ordinance does not address the number of animals allowable, though.

Elsewhere in the zoning ordinance, though, a kennel is defined as, “any lot or premises on which three or more dogs, six months old or older, are kept, either permanently or temporarily.”

“We have the discretion of applying a reasonable standard when we look at the number of dogs,” township Attorney Rob Huth said of how he believes the ordinances are interpreted in the case of LaBonty’s home versus a property with more than two personal dogs.

LaBonty said she takes exception with being defined as a kennel as DAWG is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides foster homes to animals that would be facing death in traditional shelters.

“A kennel is licensed by the state, and this is just a foster-based rescue in Shelby Township,” LaBonty said. “We’re volunteering time to help animals. We don’t make money; we spend our own money to help these animals.”

LaBonty said she even had the state Department of Agriculture, which oversees shelter licensing and regulation, to her home prior to opening the shelter in early 2012.

And she said state officials told her that she did not need a kennel license because she was not, by the state’s definition, a kennel.

“(Shelby Township’s) terminology is wrong, and there’s nothing in (the zoning ordinance) for foster-based rescues,” LaBonty said of what she believes are inadequacies in the township’s ordinances.

Township Supervisor Richard Stathakis said he backs the actions of Zavislak and the Planning Department because LaBonty is not in compliance with the zoning ordinances, but he said he is open to work with LaBonty to help bring her shelter into compliance.

“There are a lot of reasons we are trying to find some homes for these dogs right now,” Stathakis said. “If you’re going to take care of dogs, you have to do it legally. You can’t just bring dogs in and not check laws of local government.

“We’re going to do everything we can to find homes for these dogs, because we like dogs.”

LaBonty said finding homes for the dogs can be easier said than done.

“They’re not perfect animals,” LaBonty said, noting that the seven dogs she currently fosters include two epileptic huskies, one dog in need of a leg amputation following a car collision and another that had its penis torn off in an act of abuse.

“And a lot of people don’t want that, and (adopters) have to go through an adoption process and go through home checks.”

Stathakis said the township was also working to help LaBonty find a site that fits the requisite zoning for a kennel to house her rescue animals.

“We are going to try and resolve this matter,” Stathakis said. “And we’re already taking the first steps of giving her the list of possible legal locations, industrial in nature, where she could operate where it would be more palatable for the residents of Shelby Township.”

LaBonty said it is hard to find a site that meets the township’s requirements, while still providing the animals with the necessary environment within the barebones budget of her nonprofit.

“They sent me some listings, and they were all not preferred listings with no outdoor area or $2,000-a-month rent,” LaBonty said. “We don’t have enough money to pay $2,000 a month in rent. All our revenue goes to veterinary and other care for these animals.”

LaBonty said she is consulting with lawyers about her options, and that she will not abandon her foster animals.

She would prefer that the township address its ordinances and take into consideration adopting language that pertains specifically to foster shelters to address her situation, as well as growing numbers of abandoned or neglected animals in Macomb County.

“If my foster dogs get forced out of my home, they will all be euthanized, because they do not meet the adoption criteria,” LaBonty said.

“No. 1, I’m worried about my dogs, but I’m also worried about the other dogs and cats that are fostered, too,” LaBonty added, noting that there are 12 shelters similar to hers in Macomb County.

“That’s what’s going to be the problem. What is going to happen with all of these animals?”