Florida Dog Shelter Contests Order to Vacate

     (CN) — Big Dog Ranch Rescue, one of the largest no-kill dog shelters in the southeastern United States, may be forced to send its most vulnerable residents to the pound to be euthanized, according to a complaint filed in Palm Beach County.
     The problem, according to the lawsuit, is that the defendants, the town of Loxahatchee Groves and Palm Beach County, have ordered the shelter to vacate and cease operations after a violation involving temporary trailers.
     The shelter concedes that it never secured permits for the trailers, but says in the complaint that representatives of the town gave a verbal go-ahead to site plans that included the trailers.
     “The town continues to act in an arbitrary and capricious manner by selectively enforcing its code and relying on ‘good ‘ole boys’ mentality to accomplish official town business,” the complaint states. “This conduct … will cause irreparable harm.”
     For the past 10 years, Big Dog Ranch Rescue has cared for more than 12,000 sick, injured and abandoned dogs in and around Palm Beach County, according to its website. With support from high profile dog loves like former General Electric CEO Jack Welch and coal billionaire Christopher Cline, the rescue center employs veterinary staff to tend to dogs with health issues such as pregnancy, car accidents and heartworm.
     Last year, center decided to move its facilities from Wellington to the tiny and young town of Loxahatchee Groves. In April, the town — which is home to just over 2,000 people and has been incorporated for less than 10 years — approved an initial site plan, according to the complaint.
     After that, things moved very slowly, the center alleged in its complaint. Although a final site plan was submitted in June, the town council apparently didn’t begin to review it until late November. By that time, the center had enlisted attorney Gregory Coleman’s services. They had also contributed $100,000 toward road improvements in Loxahatchee Groves and “incurred significant fees to ensure that the town would begin review of the site plan,” according to the complaint.
     The center had to be out of Wellington in April 2016, and because the new facility in Loxahatchee Groves wasn’t yet constructed, hundreds of dogs had to be placed in alternate facilities, according to the plaintiffs. There were also about 50 dogs with health issues, and there was nowhere for them to go. The center was “forced to locate temporary office trailers to medically treat and house rescued dogs while the new facility was being constructed,” the complaint states. That’s where things get messy.
     According to the complaint, the town approved the final site plan along with hand-sketched office trailers on Feb. 22, giving the rescue center the go-ahead to bring the plans to Palm Beach County’s building department (Loxahatchee Groves is so small that it does not have one of its own, Coleman explained). Relying on the town’s verbal approval, the center spent $90,000 bringing office trailers to the 33-acre site to help accommodate and treat impaired dogs, the complaint states. On May 9, a notice arrived that gave Big Dog Ranch Rescue 10 business days to vacate its premises before its electricity would be shut down. The problem, according to the notice, was the office trailers. They lacked permits.
     The rescue center requested an extension on the deadline for the county shutting the power off, but the town council voted not to allow it, claiming that the rescue center lacks the required permits, according to The Palm Beach Post.
     “Time is not on the side of these medically impaired dogs,” the complaint states. “[Big Dog Ranch Rescue] requires an injunction to prevent the town from allowing BDRR’s facility from being shut down and irreparably harming the lives of many rescued dogs and leading them to certain death.”
     Judge Thomas Barkdull stopped short of issuing a formal injunction, but he did order the following: “neither defendant shall take any further action to enforce the currently pending notice to vacate and cease operation, pending further order of the court.”
     On Monday the parties went into a court-ordered mediation, which resulted in the scheduling of additional public and private this week. So while the lights will stay on for now, another court order could change that at any time, and the fate of the dogs still hangs in the balance.
     The plaintiffs are represented by Gregory Coleman of Critton, Luttier, & Coleman, LLP, in West Palm Beach.
     Loxahatchee Groves Mayor David Browning told Courthouse News he owns and loves dogs and has been upset by the scores of hate emails he has received, accusing him of being a dog killer.
     “Our town is not against the operation. We approved it. We invited it into our town. The problem is, Big Dog did not go through and get the proper permits for what they’re doing … There was no communication. Nobody called us until the issue hit the fan with the red tag from code enforcement,” Browning said.
     The bottom line, the mayor said, is “they need to come into compliance … We don’t want to kill dogs. We would love to work with them on this.”

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