FRONT ROYAL – On Wednesday evening, March 14, a divided Warren County Planning Commission forwarded a recommendation of approval of renewal of the commercial kennel conditional use permit of Wendy Tenney. Tenney is the proprietor of the commercial kennel found by planning and zoning staff to have been in multiple permit violations at the time of the March 6, 2017 fire that killed 16 dogs in her kennel.
After a lengthy discussion addressing past conditional use permit violations, gaps in a business plan for a new kennel operation requested by the commission in January, as well as the lack of a current business license for her kennel and back real estate taxes one member said go back two years or more, the commission voted 3-2 to reverse the 2017 planning and zoning staff recommendation Wendy Tenney’s kennel permit be revoked.
Chairman Scott Stickley and Ralph Rinaldi opposed the positive recommendation, while Lorraine Smelser, Hugh Henry and Robert Myers voted to recommend Tenney get a second chance at becoming a permit-compliant and safe haven provider for animals under her and her family’s commercial kennel care.
At Tenney’s first appearance before the commission at a January 10 public hearing, her attorney Jay Neal of Woodstock told the planners the Tenneys homeschooled their children and said the kennel business was a convenient commercial use that the family enjoys.
And on Wednesday night a three-person majority decided to recommend the Tenney family get a chance to continue that commercial business enjoyment. The county supervisors sent the matter back to the planning commission for further review after the staff revocation recommendation came before them on November 7, 2017.
That decision by the board of supervisors not to act on revocation four months ago came in the wake of a series of contentious letters from Tenney to or copied to the county supervisors in which she shifted blame for the fire and dog deaths on county codes and staff; calling county staff inspections and investigation of her operation “harassment”. In those communications recounted in some detail in the Royal Examiner’s February meeting coverage of Tenney’s attorney’s second request for a 30-day delay on a vote on his client’s permit, Tenney claimed conditions of her initial conditional use permit requiring kennel heating and air conditioning in weather extremes were the cause of the fire and dog deaths. See related story here.
Tenney also referenced the planning-zoning department recommendation to revoke her kennel permit as indicative of an innate prejudice against the county’s smaller landowners. The Tenneys’ Gethsemane Mountain Ranch property is 3.17 acres.
At the January commission meeting, County Planning Director Taryn Logan disputed the notion Tenney was being singled out, observing that the type of scrutiny applied to her business after the fatal fire would be focused on any business operation to determine if permit conditions were being met in the interest of public health and safety.
The finding of the emergency services investigation into the March 2017 fatal kennel fire was that a space heater Animal Control Deputy Laura Gomez had warned Tenney against using in the kennel, had been the source of the fire. Planning Zoning staff also noted that no electrical permit for the kennel could be located in the wake of the fire and animal deaths.
County Emergency Services Officer Raymond Cross filed the official kennel fire report. He wrote, “I was able to follow the burn patterns back to the area of the electrical space heater and found the wires and some components of that. I did speak with the male at the scene in reference to the breaker this power was on and he advised that he was unable to locate where it came into the panel and if it even did, again his friend wired it with no county inspection or permit.” Contacted in February, Cross said he was fairly certain the referenced “male at the scene” was Wendy Tenney’s husband.
As the planning commission debated the second 30-day delay in a vote in February, South River Commissioner Lorraine Smelser, in whose district the Tenney property lies, told her colleagues, “She’ll probably file a lawsuit as the next step if we don’t – I’m willing to go 30 more days.”
After the split March 14 vote to recommend Tenney’s CUP be renewed with a new set of conditions tied to it, the three-person majority denied any intimidation factor from the potential of litigation at an unfavorable ruling. – “I didn’t hear any of that,” Smelser commented after the meeting.
Speaking for the majority, Hugh Henry said he felt the updated permit conditions, coupled with ongoing county oversight would assure future compliance or revocation would be more easily accomplished. “I felt like when the permit was first issued years back there weren’t many restrictions and a business plan wasn’t required. And currently there is a business plan, specifications for the structure and a building inspection requirement. And I think moving forward you’ve got a more definitive (plan) that will be executed, and if it’s not executed to that plan it will be easier to revoke the permit because it will be more clear where she is or isn’t in compliance.”
However, Rinaldi, who asked Tenney and her attorney the hardest questions Wednesday night regarding the business model, past problems with compliance and delinquent business license fees and real estate and sales taxes, worried over the message the commission might be sending. Contacted the following day, Rinaldi said, “We went through the process and it is what it is. But I’m worried at the signal we’re sending to the citizens of Warren County – you can not pay your taxes and not pay your business license and sales tax; and not comply with your conditional use permit and you can still run your business.”
Questioned by Rinaldi about the impact of back taxes on businesses or permitting, County Attorney Dan Witten noted that the board of supervisors has never passed an ordinance requiring taxes be current to acquire a conditional use permit. During the meeting discussion Henry said the back tax issue raised by Rinaldi was a good point, but that he thought it could be resolved “outside this permitting process.”
Told that Tenney’s father had disputed some of the problems cited during the meeting to the press leaving the building after the meeting, including the back taxes that he contended he knew were paid because he had paid them, Rinaldi replied, “It doesn’t matter if they were paid tomorrow or paid yesterday, my understanding is she went 2-1/2 years without paying some of her taxes.” When Rinaldi asked about the back taxes and business license during the meeting, Tenney attorney Neal replied that they would be “taken care of this week.”
Citing past problems of compliance with Tenney once her permit had been issued, Planning Director Logan suggested putting a deadline on compliance with certain conditions in the new CUP.
One of Rinaldi’s primary concerns had been with the absence of construction plan for a new kennel building. A goal of having one completed by June 1 was cited in Tenney’s business plan submitted Wednesday, with a back end date of September 1. Smelser suggested making the September construction completion date a deadline in the permit conditions. That deadline was added to Henry’s motion to recommend approval of the permit, seconded by Smelser.
The 3-2 split to forward the recommendation of approval of the CUP was then made by voice vote. Prior to that vote, Rinaldi’s motion to recommend revocation of Tenney’s permit died without a second.