This afternoon we are deeply disheartened by the ruling of the Henrico County Board of Zoning Appeals, which upheld the Director of Planning’s notice of violation issued to Susan Mills on July 7. That notice, as you may recall from prior posts, cited Susan for a zoning violation, indicating that caring for feral cats in a residential (R-4) zone is not a permitted use.
We have firmly believed and argued this morning that feeding and caring for feral cats like feeding and caring for any other companion animal is a permitted use because it is “customarily incidental” to a residence and therefore must be regarded as an accessory use. The County’s own attorney was asked to define customarily incidental, and he replied that customary is “usual or habitual” and that incidental is simply “subordinate to the primary use” of the dwelling.
As Susan’s representative before the Board of Zoning Appeals today, I stressed that a distinction between feral cats and any other companion animal cannot be made under Virginia or local statute. Therefore, if it is customarily incidental to a residence feed or otherwise provide care to a companion animal such as a pet dog or cat, this must also be true for feral cats.
This position was supported by the lone dissenting vote that came from Russell “Al” Wright. Wright presented the view that the Board, in its judgment, should see the customarily incidental clause as a call for property owners to exercise common sense. And he strongly urged that feeding an animal that is homeless on one’s own property is certainly using common sense and therefore must be considered customarily incidental. He also cautioned his fellow Board members that upholding the violation against Susan would represent a gross infringement on personal property rights. If you can’t even feed an animal on your back porch, where will the regulation end?
The other Board members seemed unable to articulate a legal basis for their conclusion but nonetheless determined that they would support the original position of the director of planning to cite Susan. Vice Chairman Robert Witte introduced a motion to deny Susan’s appeal, which was immediately seconded by new Board member Greg Baka. They, together with Chairwoman Helen Harris and James Nunnally, voted in favor of the violation notice, effectively prohibiting Susan from continuing to feed or care for feral cats in her own yard. The Richmond SPCA will continue to explore options that will defend the lives of these cats and the rights of compassionate people like Susan.
In addition to being grateful to Al Wright for his thoughtful analysis of the issue, the Richmond SPCA and I want to express our gratitude to the more than 50 caring supporters who attended this morning’s hearing. Both personal testimony regarding the care and feeding of feral cats by dedicated community members and local groups such as Henrico Humane Society and empirical data from national organizations including the Humane Society of the United States and Alley Cat Allies more than outlined the case to support Susan’s appeal. The most compelling speaker by far was eighth-grader Katie Harris, who pleaded with the board to set an example of compassion for school children such as herself.
The Board of Zoning Appeals took an approach that came down on the side of hysteria instead of aligning the county with compassionate, reasonable care and management of feral cats. Prohibiting responsible people from providing food and care will in reality have the opposite effect on the neighborhood, leading the cats to forage for food and allowing their rabies vaccinations to expire. We fail to see the legal rationale for why the board would have decided in this way, and it does not seem to accomplish anything positive in practical terms either. All it does is subject innocent animals to starvation and lack of veterinary care. This was a sad day for animals and for the County of Henrico.
Robin Robertson Starr is the chief executive officer of the Richmond SPCA. To read her biography or that of our other bloggers, please click here. Before posting a comment, please review our comment guidelines. Please note that our comment policy requires a first and last name to be used as your screen name.
Sept. 20, 2011: Effort against feral cats in Henrico goes before Henrico Board of Zoning Appeals this Thursday
Sept. 22, 2011: Update on effort against feral cats in Henrico County
Oct. 14, 2011: Companion animals need your support in Henrico County on Oct. 20