Frisky's faces zoning challenge again

11-year-old battle resumes Thursday

August 01, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Howard County's own monkey case is not about evolution like the famous 1920s Scopes trial in Tennessee, but after 11 years of hearings, trials and testimony, it might seem to be just as drawn out.

The legal struggle over Frisky's Wildlife and Primate Sanctuary, located since 1993 on a 4-acre site at 10790 Old Frederick Road in Woodstock, is to resume with a 6:30 p.m. Board of Appeals hearing in the county's Columbia offices Thursday. The struggle between Frisky's operator, Colleen Layton-Robbins, and neighbors who claim having wild animals nearby is a danger has already gone all the way to the Maryland Court of Appeals.

But the state's highest court ordered in May 2007 that the case be sent back to the county board for another review. This week's hearing could stretch into several more nights of testimony and deliberations, and eventually, more appeals.

"I stay focused on the animals' welfare," said Layton-Robbins, who began caring for discarded or injured animals in 1970 and created Frisky's in 1976. She said there were two dozen monkeys among the several hundred animals and birds at the shelter, along with other, more domestic creatures like rabbits and squirrels.

The shelter is rallying supporters to show up in force at the hearing.

Fred Lauer, her attorney, wants to present witnesses to show the shelter is safely operating with all the required permits, and should receive county zoning approval and be left alone.

"We meet the criteria for conditional use for exotic animals," he said. Besides, he and Layton-Robbins feel that the shelter's having operated without incident during the entire period since the first complaint was filed in late 1999 is proof that there is no risk.

Rchard Wyckoff, a neighbor of the shelter and its leading critic, had no immediate comment. His lawyer, Thomas Meachum, said he would try to argue the case on narrow legal grounds.

"It's not clear to us that they have met all state and federal requirements," he said.

The original complaint was that Frisky's was operating outside local zoning law. The Board of Appeals decided in May 2004 to give the shelter a conditional-use zoning permit but not for exotic or wild animals, which meant the monkeys had to go. But Layton-Robbins appealed, and in September 2004, before a Circuit Court hearing was held, the County Council changed animal control laws to exempt animal sanctuaries from laws that prohibit ownership of exotic animals. The law also changed the definition of an animal sanctuary to include places that provide permanent housing for wild or exotic animals and have all the necessary permits and licenses.

Despite that, Layton-Robbins lost at both the Circuit court and the Court of Special Appeals, which said the change in the law came too late for this case. But in May 2007, the state's highest court disagreed, and sent the matter back to the county Board of Appeals, where it now rests.

A series of scheduling problems and postponements left the issue dangling until now.

Lauer said he feels that he must show the board the shelter has all the required technical approvals and therefore should qualify under zoning. But Meachum said he plans to argue that while animal control laws may have been changed, the county's zoning laws weren't, so the monkeys should still be removed.

"They're holding the hearing on how the passage of the [2004] law applies in their decision," Meachum said. "We're going to be arguing that it doesn't apply in this case," he said.

Layton-Robbins, meanwhile, is undaunted.

"You hope the merits of your history over 40 years speaks for itself," she said. "I think the team at Frisky's shows we're doing good work. We're not quitting. We're not going anywhere."

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