Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The Erosion of the R-5 Zone? Some Question Blairstown’s Proposed New Kennel Rules for Residential Districts

If you’re wondering what it would be like to live next door to a kennel, ask Blairstown resident Dave Scherrle.

“Dog barks are normal residential sounds to the sense that the neighbor lets his dog out for an hour or something, or maybe 15 or 20 minutes and the dog gets excited and barks,” Scherrle said. “But when it comes to living next to a kennel full of hound dogs, that’s not the case. It’s distracting. It’s annoying and it affects your quality of life, it affects your ability to fall asleep, to focus on your work and sit outside and enjoy your property.”

In 2019, Scherrle came before the land use board to complain about his neighbors, claiming David Berberian and Sabrina Ladlee, residents of 141 Hope Road, had filled their newly built barn with hound dogs and had no permit to do so.

“Nobody that spends $10,000 a year in taxes to live in Blairstown should have to lay in their bed at night and be plagued by having a listen to a kennel next door that wasn’t here when I moved into this residential area,” stated Scherrle.

Berberian and Ladlee had filed for an “agricultural storage” permit and were housing more than a dozen hunting dogs on their 26 acres of preserved farmland. These dogs were not their personal pets. The dogs belonged to an organization known as Spring Valley Hounds, of which Ladlee is a member.

Spring Valley Hounds is a cross-county (Warren, Morris and Sussex) nonprofit organization that facilitates drag hunting, an equestrian sport where mounted riders follow an artificially laid scent accompanied by hounds.

Blairstown zoning regulations state kennels are clearly permitted in highway commercial zones and prohibited in commercial community zones. There is no mention of kennels in R-5 single-family residential zones, whether they are permitted or not, leaving interpretation vague.

Board attorney Roger Thomas explained at the 2019 meeting that, “Under the general terms of ordinance interpretation, if something is not permitted, it is therefore prohibited.”

After lengthy debate, the board passed a resolution confirming that Berberian and Ladlee were operating an illegal kennel and made new decisions about kennels in residential zones. The resolution states, “kennels are not permitted within the R-5 zone.”

It’s been nearly four years since the township passed that original 2019 resolution, and yet Spring Valley Hounds has not removed the dogs from the Hope Road property.

Spring Valley Hounds was asked to reapply for a use, or “D” variance. Instead, members of the of the organization told Deputy Mayor and township committee member Walter Orcutt that the organization submitted an application with the Warren County Agricultural Development Board. Since 141 Hope Road is classified as preserved farmland, jurisdiction is handed over to the county.

According to Orcutt, the agricultural development board could supersede any township rulings. However, no application was actually submitted.

In an email to Scherrle, Teresa Kaminski, the confidential assistant to the department wrote, “Our board has not received an application or a request from the landowner for certification of commercial farm and has not been referred to by the municipality.”

Kaminski explained that kennels are not considered an agricultural use and that the development board does not issue permits for zoning or construction. Blairstown Township committee member Debra Waldron detailed what steps the township must take when a resolution is ignored.

“The township is supposed to enforce their laws, so it’s the town’s obligation,” she said. “If they know something’s wrong, they’re supposed to send the zoning officer out to give a violation. The same goes for the animal control officer.”

The Ridge View Echo reached out to Spring Valley Hounds for comment and received no response.

Fast forward to 2023 and the board is set to send controversial ordinance 2023-02, that would now allow dog kennels in residential areas, back to the township committee after adding the legislation to the township’s current “conditional use” rules.

At the board meeting held on May 15th, committee member Robert Law introduced the addition and explained that if any new kennel wished to operate in an R-5 zone it would need to come before the board for a case-by-case analysis. New Jersey dog licensing requirements are cited as enforcement of the new regulations.

Board member Jeanette Miksa spoke to the audience to explain her position.

“Although the language of the ordinance has not changed, my vote from a no to a yes on it has changed,” Miksa said. “At our subcommittee meeting, I was made aware of and felt comfortable knowing that moving forward, any new registered animal facilities that would want to open or establish themselves in this town would have to come before this board.”

Ordinance 2023-02 now states, “Animal facilities are a permitted conditional use in the HC and R5 zones exclusively.”

Some conditional uses and standards include:

• Registration with the township, and as required by the Warren County Health Department and the New Jersey Department of Health
• Shall be located only on properties with 10 or more acres of land
• Demonstrate the employment of adequate physical and electronic animal noise control systems
• Demonstrate the installation and maintenance of a system for the disposal of animal excrement that meets all applicable state and county standards
• Demonstrate compliance with all other required state, county and municipal facility plan reviews, health inspections, licenses and fees
• Demonstrate an adequate plan for the disinfection of cages, floors and hard-surfaced pens or runs on not less than a daily basis.

At a board meeting in March of this year, Thomas explained that an existing use is typically “grandfathered,” meaning it is exempt from changes in zoning ordinances. Since Spring Valley Hounds was denied use in 2019 and a resolution prohibiting kennels in residential areas was passed as a reaction, the organization could not be considered a grandfathered use.

Committee member Waldron sat on the board in 2019 and remembers Scherrle’s testimony. She disagrees with Ordinance 2023-02 and its implication.

“Your next-door neighbor can now cite this as an example and want to open a kennel or want to have a hunt club in their backyard,” Waldron said. “I mean, all of a sudden, your property values and your sanity living in an R-5 zone is going to be challenged. This could happen to anyone in this town.”

The Blairstown Township Committee will need to review the amendments made to Ordinance 2023-02 and hold another public hearing where residents can raise questions and concerns. The next township committee meeting is Wednesday, May 24th.

In the meantime, Scherrle and Waldron pose the same question to Blairstown residents: “Would you want this to happen to you?”

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Alex Tironi, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

A recent graduate of George Mason University in Virginia, Alex pursued a degree in journalism with a double minor in American Sign Language and nonprofit studies. She worked as assistant news editor to the Fourth Estate, the university newspaper where she reported on many things but mostly focused on campus crime and PD activity. While working for a nonprofit called the Borgen Project, she wrote about global health and poverty in third-world nations. Alex recently finished an internship writing and editing for a business consulting company in NY. Growing up in the area, she has always been active in her community and brings the same intention as a contributing writer for the Ridge View Echo.