Fines Imposed, Dogs Must Go
Mary Barrett, the organization's president, was ordered to pay a $750 fine and move all of her rescue dogs from her home by Monday, Oct. 15.
Special Master James Thaler found Barrett in violation of city ordinance for operating a kennel for her nonprofit animal rescue organization.
Following Thaler's order, Barrett's attorney, Diane Griffith, said the fine would "bankrupt the organization" and "probably euthanize 14 dogs." Griffith then stated, "Congratulations, is that what you wanted?"
Thaler responded to Griffith's remarks: "You are way out of order in making that statement. You will show me, the city and those dogs respect, to damn those dogs is on you," Thaler said.
Thaler ruled Barrett is operating a nonprofit business out of her home and ordered her to remove the dogs and pay a fine.
"There's nothing on the city or this hearing today about the euthanization of the dogs. They should not have been there in the first place. This is not on anybody's back," Thaler stated.
"I appreciate rescues, I have a rescue. I don't want you all using it as an excuse. You refuse to get a conditional use permit," he said.
Special Master Jim Thaler handed down the order after finding Barrett in violation of City Code 22-4.02, which does not allow businesses in a residential zoning district.
Thaler is allowing Barrett to keep her animals which includes 3 dogs and 2 cats, but said she has to remove all of the current rescue dogs. Barrett says that includes 10 dogs.
Thaler stated that regardless if the organization is a non profit, business is conducted at the address.
Barrett said the fine will hurt the rescue, which is composed of an all-volunteer board of directors; however, she said it will be paid.
"The rescue still goes on, but I have to be able to foster for my own organization. We’re gonna fight it," Barrett said.
Timeline: Animal Hoarding Call Led to Inspection, then Citations
Animal Control Officer Jason Anderson conducted a routine annual inspection on August 7 as part of Barrett's pet dealer permit that she obtained a year ago from Pinellas County. A year ago, Barrett was not a registered non profit in the state of Florida.
Anderson said an officer originally visited Barrett last year after a resident called with concerns that Barrett was hoarding animals. At that time, Anderson said officials explained to Barrett that she had to register as a non profit or get a pet dealer permit.
Two months ago, an officer returned to her home for a routine check up. It was during the inspection that Anderson documented a total of 27 animals, including three dogs and two cats that belonged to Barrett.
Anderson said there were missing pet licenses and the property lacked adequate ventilation, so he cited Barrett with five citations including unsanitary pet conditions for a pet dealership.
At that time Anderson told Barrett that she needed help with her animals, “There’s too many animals, there’s not enough ventilation, we need to get some better treatment for the animals,” he stated on Thursday.
Prior to the Thursday hearing, Barrett's attorney, Diane Griffith, said two of the five citations were dropped because Anderson entered Barrett's home illegally. Griffith said during the visit, Barrett tried to explain to Anderson that she obtained her non profit status in the state, but when Anderson found no record of the organization having 501c3 status with the Federal Government, he informed her that she had to let him inside to check on the animals.
At the hearing, Griffith stated that the statue no longer applied to Barrett because according to county ordinance 14-61, non profits do not require a dealer's permit and therefore are exempt from the dealer's permit annual inspection, which Anderson conducted during his visit.
Anderson told Gulfport Patch that two of the five citations were dismissed as a technicality because Barrett is exempt from the pet dealer citations since she has become a non profit organization.
The three citations pending are "no license citations," according to Anderson. He said many of the animals he documented during his visit were not licensed.
While Anderson testified and explained all of the above information, his sole purpose of addressing the Special Master on Thurday, was to describe what he saw during his visit. Code Enforcement Officer Bruce Earling stated that he had not seen the inside of Barrett's home but Anderson had.
Animal Control Contacts Code Enforcement
The situation was brought to Code Enforcement Officer Bruce Earling on or before August 9 by Pinellas County Animal Control Officer Jason Anderson. Anderson provided Earling with photographs, a video and documentation of his visit.
Earling said Barrett was cited and then contacted several times prior to the Special Magistrate Hearing. Earling called Barrett to conduct an inspection last Wednesday and see if she had come into compliance, but she denied access to her home.
Kennels Not Allowed, Businesses Not Allowed
As a result of the information provided by Pinellas County Animal Services, Barrett was cited for having a kennel in a residentially zoned district. According to Special Master Jim Thaler, kennels are not allowed in an R-2 Zone and neither are businesses.
Diane Griffith, Barrett's attorney, maintained that Limbo Chihuahua - Chihuahua Rescue is not a business and explained that the Code of Ordinances does not specify allowances or restrictions for non-for-profit kennels.
"Gulfport City Ordinance defines a kennel as 3 or more dogs. Everyone agrees, a kennel is defined as 3 or more dogs. So then, you by definition under code, have a kennel," Thaler said.
According to City Code 22-5.04, the following uses and structures are permitted in an R-2 zoning district:
- Single-family dwelling.
- Duplex dwelling.
- Public park for passive recreation use, including picnic areas and playground equipment, not to exceed one and one-half (1.5) acres.
Griffith stated that under the section regarding business fees, a person running a for-profit kennel must pay an annual assessment of $70. (The information is under item #167 in City Code 13-34 in the Charter and Code of Ordinances. ) She stated that the fees did not apply to Barrett, because her organization is a non-profit.
Griffith's argument was that Barrett fostered dogs as part of her rescue organization's efforts to place animals in permanent homes.
Thaler stated that Barrett could have applied for a conditional use permit in order to have a kennel as part of her rescue organization.
“We’ve never been aware that we needed one," Griffith said.
Thaler concluded that business was conducted at Barrett's home address, including dog training and volunteer visits to pick up or drop off dogs. He also noted that Barrett's address was listed as the principal address for the organization on Sunbiz.org. Having a business in an R-2 zoning district is not allowed and having a kennel in that district is also not allowed.
As a result, Thaler found Barrett in violation of city code.
Griffith has told Gulfport Patch that she will file an appeal with the Pinellas County Circuit Court. The appeal would likely freeze Thaler's order to remove the rescue dogs from her home; however, the fine of $750 is due to the City of Gulfport by Thursday.
In the meantime, Barrett said she's always looking for foster homes. Learn more about the organization on the group's Facebook page.