Dog dispute in Lee County likely headed to court

Residents of Brittany Plantation want rescue dog kennel closed

LEESBURG _ Melanie Merritt, who lives in an upscale neighborhood in the western portion of Lee County, notes that the Lee County Chamber of Commerce’s logo is “Life Works Well Here.”

Life in her portion of Lee County is not working so well, says Merritt, and it’s all because of a dog kennel that she and several of her neighbors in Brittany Plantation believe is operating out of bounds.

Merritt, 112 Canvasback Drive, and other Brittany Plantation residents have been attempting for months to get Lee County commissioners to act on their request to close the kennel, which is on the property of Wes and Kim Terrell on Pinewood Road. Merritt and her husband, Jeff, own a second home in Brittary Plantation on Widgeon Drive that is adjacent to the Terrell home and kennel.

The Terrells operate the kennel as a safe haven for dogs that often are brought to them as a last option before being euthanized. They work with several area humane societies to provide a home for dogs.

Melanie’s husband, Jeff, said the population at the kennel this week was slightly more than 50 dogs, several of them pit bulls.

Speaking at a public hearing Tuesday night, Merritt told commissioners it’s time to comply with Lee’s zoning ordinance and close the kennel.

“This is about enforcing the ordinances and laws of the county,” said Melanie Merritt. “We want the dogs removed, not euthanized. … This is residential property, not agricultural.

“We bought property there 10 years ago. It was eight to 10 miles out in the country and we loved it. We want to spend time outside with the family.”

Merritt said dogs in the kennel “bark all hours of the day and the smell is especially bad in the summer.” She said real estate professionals have told her that the presence of the dogs has negatively impacted her property values, especially the second home in the subdivision that the Merritts own.

“Our quality of life is diminished, all because of a mistake,” Merritt said.

Albany attorney Joe Dent said he had been retained by the Merritts “for any issues that arise out of this matter.”

Dent contends the land in the subdivision is residential and is not the place for dog kennels.

“This is a ticklish issue because your dealing with rescued dogs, but the fact of the matter is this is not about euthanizing dogs,” Dent said. “They should just not be in a residential area.”

Several other residents of Brittany Plantation attended Tuesday night’s meeting of the Lee County Commission to echo remarks by the Merritts and to lend their support.

Dawson attorney T. Gamble, who is representing the Terrells, said the dispute involves a “multitude of issues.”

Gamble said Kim Terrell went to zoning administrators in November 2006 and fully disclosed her plans to build a shelter housing a large number of dogs and wanted to make sure it would not violate any codes before purchasing the property.

“They told her she could go forward with plans to purchase the home and house the animals,” Gamble said. “She is within all zoning regulations, according to Lee officials who have been out to the property 10 to 20 times over the past few years.”

Gamble said Lee officials responded to notice complaints and found that the dogs did not reach a decibel level higher than what ordinances allow.

Gamble suggested that the problems surfaced when Brittany Plantation was developed more than a decade ago by George McIntosh. Gamble said a company called Regional Engineering Group, acting as an agent for McIntosh, came before the commission in 2001 asking that the 140-plus acres for Brittany Plantation be rezoned from agricultural to residential.

Gamble csaid McIntosh already had sold 14 acres from the Brittany Plantation to the Terrells and that acreage should not have been presented for rezoning because neither McIntosh nor Regional Engineering Group controlled those acres.

“That land still reverts back to agricultural,” Gamble said. “I think the parts that McIntosh owned was properly rezoned.”

There were a couple of people speaking out at the public hearing who supported the Terrells for their work to save the animals. They also dispute claims on constant loud noises or odors.

After hearing all the comments Tuesday night, county commissioners went into a closed session to discuss pending litigation, presumably the dog dispute. The session last about an hour, at which time commissioners resumed the regular session and immediately voted to adjourn without taking any action.

“It’s in the hands of our attorney now,” said Commission Chairman Rick Muggridge.

Ultimately, it’s likely to be in the hands of a judge and jury.