Hillsboro citizens speak out against proposed limit on pets during hearing on zoning code updates

Read the original article by Caitlin Forsha at highlandcountypress.com here.

An overflow crowd attended a public hearing hosted by the Hillsboro planning commission and city council Monday night, with a number of concerned citizens speaking out against sections of the proposed update to the city’s zoning code.

In addition to a standing-room-only crowd in the municipal courtroom, one citizen told the council and commission that a crowd had also gathered in the lobby at the Highland County Justice Center, where the meeting was held. Cars were parked in the grass along the driveway at the Justice Center Monday night.

As previously reported in The Highland County Press, the proposed update to the city of Hillsboro zoning code includes a section limiting the number of pets per household. Many of the people in the audience indicated that they were there to protest the proposed legislation, which includes a limit of “no more than four dogs or four cats, or a combination of dogs and cats as not to total more than four per household” as well as “a maximum of four chicken hens or four rabbits, or a combination of both.”

Amy Sharp Schneider, who works with her family at Hillsboro Veterinary Hospital as well as volunteering with the Highland County Dog Pound, read a statement she had prepared addressing the proposed limit on the number of pets per household. Schneider said that a member of city council told her that this part of the code “was not meant to penalize good pet owners and would not be strictly enforced across the board.” In response, Schneider had a list of questions for council.

“Why have the law at all, if it’s not going to be enforced?” Schneider asked. “Will people neglect to license their dogs properly if this ordinance passes? Will they be forced to lie to the county about the number of dogs they own so as not to be in violation of the city code? Who will monitor this? Will this apply to 4-H kids participating in educational programs involving animals? This applies to dogs and cats, but will people be over the limit when their kids get a couple of hamsters? How about aquariums? Are we limiting people to four fish? Will reptiles and pet birds also be considered?

“It seems a bit too complicated to just arbitrarily choose a number. Additionally, how does one choose which of their multiple animals to part with? Once a decision is made, where are the excess animals to go?”

Schneider said that she has seen “neglect, abuse and poor care, but there’s not always a correlation between poor care and the number of dogs in the home,” citing examples of neglect involving fewer than four pets.

“Animal lovers are the kinds of people that will open their hearts and homes to animals, often to more than several at a time,” Schneider said. “This should not be an issue of number, but rather quality of care.

“I think I speak for many people here when I say let’s not implement unnecessarily laws, but continue to reasonably protect the welfare of the city’s animals as we always have.”

Following cheers and applause from the audience for Schneider’s presentation, another citizen, Kelton Workman, spoke and said that she agreed with Schneider.

“This is just so wrong to some of us people like me,” she said. “I’ve got dogs, I’ve got cats. My daughter just got a lizard. We’ve got fish tanks all over the house. We love our pets, and they’re happy and they’re healthy.

“It’s not fair to us because there’s other people that’s neglecting their pets. There’s people like me – I know here – their pets aren’t property. They’re not pieces of something that you can just cast away. They’re part of our family. They’re our fur kids, or scaled kids or feathered kids or whatever anybody’s got. It’s just not right to limit us.”

Workman said that she is a “responsible pet owner” and that several of her dogs are elderly, have health problems and would not be adopted if they were placed in the dog pound.

“Don’t persecute all of us for a few’s misguidedness and uncaring,” she said.

Hillsboro planning commission member Tom Eichinger did say that there may be an exemption added for 4-H members, after one local 4-H member, Andrea Kelch, spoke at the hearing. Kelch explained the process for 4-H members, like herself, who raise chickens.

“I take market chickens to the Highland County Fair,” she said. “When we get our market chickens, we all go at the same time and get 10 market chickens. That obviously exceeds four.

“If I got rid of six of them and then I had my four, I have to take three of those to the fair. If two ended up dying, I’d get an incomplete on my 4-H project that I worked so hard to take.”

Eichinger told Kelch that the committees had “discussed 4-H quite extensively, and for whatever reason, a line did not get put in the code that exempts that program from any of these regulations.”

“That is something we’ve already looked at and want to add,” he said.

“I also wanted to say that I have four cats and six dogs, and all of them are rescues,” Kelch said. “I love each of my animals exactly the same. If this went through, we’d have to part with quite a few of them. I just want everybody to be aware: you will be separating families. So don’t tell me that my family’s too big.”

In response to Eichinger’s proposal, Cheri Burton said that exempting the 4-H students “shows me that you’re not really concerned with the amount of animals.”

“Go to the people that don’t obey the laws,” she said.

William Lapthorn of Hillsboro addressed both the pet ordinance and other issues he found within the zoning ordinance.

Along with saying that rabbits have to live outside is “cruel,” as he has a house-trained rabbit, Lapthorn said that the code “doesn’t override further stringent written code within Hillsboro.” He quoted 90.03 of the city’s code of ordinances, which states: “No person, being the owner of, or having the charge or control of any chickens, geese, ducks, goats, horses, swine, sheep, cows, ponies or other animals or fowl, other than dogs or cats, shall cause or permit these animals to be housed or kept in any building, coop, cage, or enclosure of any kind or description which is nearer than 100 feet from any inhabited dwelling within the city.”

“It just about criminalizes everybody,” Lapthorn said.

Lapthorn also said that he found a statement in the proposed zoning code “worrisome.” Under “interpretation and application,” it states: “In the interpretation of this code, if a use within the code is not specifically permitted, it shall be prohibited.”

“If anything is not mentioned at all as being allowed, it’s disallowed,” Lapthorn said. “To me, this is the United States of America. It’s not North Korea, it’s not communist Russia or Germany. We should be under the explicit understanding that if it’s not illegal, it should be permitted and not the other way around.”

Kathy Green, who said she does not live in the city limits but often fosters dogs and puppies, echoed Schneider’s sentiments on “quality of care.”

“One of the things that I have noticed in volunteering for the pound and being somewhat familiar with the Humane Society, along with all the other pounds and rescues I’ve been working with, is that the number of animals makes no difference,” Green said. “It’s the love and the care and the respect that you give the animals.”

Hillsboro resident Richard Stiffler pointed out that if a person is unable to find homes for a litter of cats or dogs within the allotted 120 days proposed in the ordinance, they will be inclined to “turn them loose” in a neighborhood.

Two Hillsboro veterinarians also spoke at the meeting in response to regulations on veterinarian offices in the proposed code. Dr. Jennifer Lance, who said the proposed limit on pets was “absolutely ridiculous,” asked about the “grandfathering” clause for pet hospitals.

Dr. Reid Sharp said that “three of the four practices of this town would be in violation of” the proposed clause on veterinary offices, which says: “Animal hospitals and veterinarian offices are permitted in C, D, and E districts subject to being set back a minimum of 100 feet from any residential district or use. Such uses shall not include any outdoor runs or play areas for animals.”

“This clause in this zoning information, I feel like, is prohibiting us to expand,” Sharp said. “Not that we have visions of getting huge, but what if we want to add another exam room? Now we have to go through this whole process to make an addition to our building because our building is within 100 feet of a residential [district].”

Prior to the citizens’ comments, Eichinger introduced Elizabeth Fields, a certified planner with planning, zoning and development services firm McBride Dale Clarion. At the beginning of the hearing, she gave a presentation outlining some of the proposed changes.

Fields told the crowd that she initially began working with the city in May 2016 on a diagnosis of the existing code.

“Your existing code was mostly written in the mid-’50s,” she said. “Imagine how many changes our world has gone through in the last 60 years. We’re in a completely different realm.”

According to Fields’ presentation, the diagnosis was based on her review of the code; feedback from city administrators, boards and commissions; and comments from the steering committee, which included local residents, city administrators, planning commission members and city council members. The committee met monthly to review the code, one section at a time, and the new code was also reviewed by the city’s legal counsel.

The four goals for the code update were to reorganize and reformat the code, modernize standards, update district uses and standards and streamline processes, Fields said.

“The old code is about 30 pages long and is not user-friendly,” Fields said. “It’s hard to find things. It’s not organized very cleanly. That was one of the major things, to make the code easier for people to use.”

Fields said they added chapters, headers, footers, page numbers, graphics and many tables to the code, reorganized the numbering system and added hyperlinks to the PDF draft to easily switch to a referenced section.

One of the biggest changes is placing the sign code in the zoning code, instead of in its own chapter in the Code of Ordinances, and “completely overhauling it.”

“You currently have it so city council sees every sign,” Fields said. “That’s not typical. Most community have administrative sign approvals, or if there’s a variance for it or something, then maybe there’s a public process. Your current sign code is just not set up in a business-friendly way.”

In the proposed zoning code, there are “a lot more allowances” for various types of signs.

“We also changed the process so if a sign meets all requirements of the code, it can be approved administratively, and it will only go toward the Board of Zoning Appeals if a sign needs a variance,” Fields said. “We tried to update those standards to accommodate much more of what you already have and the requests that you’re getting. You might as well make those things standard so you’re not going through this process to slow down business.”

Fields also discussed “a quirk where if there was a nonconforming business or use that didn’t conform with your current code, it had to convert to be conforming with your code in order to sell that property.” Instead, the revised zoning code would allow for “grandfathering” so that “any use that exists today can remain as is for as long as you want.”

Other changes include:

• The elimination of “fees and other variable requirements,” including application requirements, from the code due to outdated information;

• An update of standards “to be more in line with how most communities regulate parking, where each use has a specific parking ratio;”

• A table with an up-to-date list of definitions, which is consolidated at the end of the code;

• A switch from “prohibited uses” to “permitted uses” within the zoning code, including a table that outlines permitted uses for each specific zone;

• The incorporation of use-specific standards for certain permitted uses that have unique development issues or regulations;

• An update of various development review processes;

• The addition of a summary table of review bodies to clarify who reviews, recommends and approves development applications; and

• The addition of a table to explain the mailed and published notice requirements for different development applications.

“If things need to change, evolve or shift slightly, that’s what we’re here to talk about,” Fields told the crowd. “Then it’s up to city council if they want to make those decisions or not.

“The plan is for my firm to also help the city with a comprehensive plan to start in the next couple months so we can also talk about your long-term vision for your community.”

At 7 p.m., council president pro tempore Justin Harsha stopped the hearing in order to begin the regularly scheduled city council meeting, but he invited the public to submit comments to the city administration and to attend future meetings.

“How many people were here about the pet issue?” he asked. Numerous people raised their hands in response.

“Just to let you know, there’s a ton of people out there who couldn’t come in that’s here for the pet issue as well,” Burton said.

Harsha said that he would place the zoning code back in the zoning and annexation committee to allow time for more public comments, as council will consider the proposed zoning code during their next three meetings.

To read the proposed zoning code update, click here.

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