Lawyers clash on breeding of snakes

Balto. County court hears appeal by neighbors of business

November 11, 1999|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Peter Kahl's two-year fight to save his Glen Arm snake-breeding operation went to Baltimore County Circuit Court yesterday as lawyers squared off over the fate of his $500,000-a-year business.

Attorneys for Kahl's neighbors -- who say his 50- by-100-foot breeding barn could damage their property values -- argue that his operation is only permitted in business zones where pet stores and other commercial uses are allowed.

"He's stretching the definition of agriculture to suit himself," said Carole Demilio, who argued the case with J. Carroll Holzer.

But they appeared to get a skeptical reception from Circuit Judge John G. Turnbull II at a hearing where Kahl's lawyers argued that snake breeding is no different from dairy farming or raising sheep.

"Where does it say he can't raise snakes?" asked Turnbull, who interrupted Demilio several times during her argument.

The courtroom clash was the latest in a feud between Kahl and neighbors over a breeding operation of up to 500 adult pythons and boa constrictors and up to 500 baby snakes.

At issue is whether county officials improperly gave Kahl permits for the operation in violation of county zoning law, and whether snake breeding is a form of animal husbandry allowed in the agricultural zone where he lives and raises the reptiles.

Kahl, the son of former County Executive Christian M. Kahl, has been collecting snakes since he was a child and breeding them for more than a decade. He got a county license for a snake "holding facility" in 1994, and in 1997 got a permit to build the "reptile barn."

But neighbors challenged the operation before the county Board of Appeals, which said last November that Kahl's snakes are not livestock and that his operation does not qualify as a farm.

Demilio made that same argument yesterday, saying that the raising of snakes cannot be considered animal husbandry because they are wild animals -- an argument that drew a sharp response from the judge.

"Are bison wild animals?" Turnbull shot back, noting that bison are being raised in the county's agricultural zone. "You'd better find another argument," he said.

The judge's comments brought angry mutterings from neighbors who attended the 1 1/2-hour hearing.

"This is disgusting," whispered one neighbor.

Turnbull said he will issue a written ruling, but indicated his would not be the final word.

"I am nothing more than a whistlestop on the way to the Court of Appeals," he said.

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