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Supervisors to vote on permit renewal for fatal kennel fire proprietor

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Wendy Tenney, at a March 14th, 2018 Warren County Planning Commission Meeting, in which she fielded questions from members about her desire to open another kennel after her family lost its kennel in a March, 2017 fire.

It was a divided county planning commission that forwarded a 3-2 recommendation of approval of renewal of Wendy Tenney’s conditional use permit for a commercial breeding kennel in the wake of a March 2017 fire that killed 16 dogs. Photo/Roger Bianchi

FRONT ROYAL –  On the evening of April 17 the Warren County Board of Supervisors will review for the second time planning department and planning commission recommendations on renewal or revocation of the commercial breeding kennel permit of Wendy Tenney. The matter was first before the supervisors on November 7, 2017, when a recommendation of revocation was forwarded to them by planning staff.

16 dogs died in a fire at Tenney’s Limeton Road kennel on March 6, 2017. The County fire investigation determined the cause of the fire to be a space heater run from an illegally-wired electrical box. It was a space heater Tenney had been warned against using by Sheriff’s Office Animal Control Officer Laura Gomez after Tenney noted its wiring showed signs of being chewed on by the kennel dogs.
A county planning staff review found multiple violations of Tenney’s original conditional use permit and a history of cancelling inspections and delays or failures to reschedule.

However in the wake of the series of letters from Tenney to, or copied to, the county’s elected officials criticizing its planning staff’s assessment of her operation and county codes related to kennel permits, the county supervisors returned the matter to the planning commission for further review after it came before them last November.

Despite planning staff’s continued concerns over Tenney’s past violations and at least one commissioner’s public acknowledgment of Tenney’s read-between-the-lines potential of litigation if things didn’t go her way on renewal of her kennel permit, on March 14 a divided planning commission forwarded a 3-2 recommendation of approval of renewal of Tenney’s conditional use permit for a commercial breeding kennel to the supervisors. See related story:  Planning Commission majority recommends 2nd chance for kennel owner

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 breeding kennel care.

Speaking for the majority following the vote, Hugh Henry said he felt the updated permit conditions, coupled with ongoing county oversight would assure future compliance or that revocation would be more easily accomplished.

“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,” Henry said following the March 14 meeting.

Asked after that vote if an implied threat of litigation had anything to do with their positive votes, the trio of renewal voters indicated no. Even Smelser, who had observed a month earlier when Tenney’s attorney requested a second, one-month delay on a planning commission vote on her CUP renewal application that “She’ll probably file a lawsuit as the next step if we don’t (grant the delay)” denied feeling pressure of that kind. LINK-Fatal kennel fire applicant granted second delay by county planners

Your fault, not mine
As Royal Examiner reported after that February delay, communications from Gethsemane Mountain Ranch kennel proprietor Wendy Tenney to county officials in the wake of the fatal fire have been contentious at best. In a series of letters Tenney aggressively shifts blame for the fire on county officials and codes, declining to accept any responsibility for what happened in her kennel despite the county staff finding the kennel was illegally wired to facilitate a space heater and that, that heating was the source of the fire.

“And again, for the record, the night of the fire I was in complete compliance according to Warren County Code. And, my dogs were up as it was after 10 p.m., according to code; and they had heat, according to code. They couldn’t escape and it Killed Them. They died adhering to Warren County Code,” Tenney wrote County Planning Director Taryn Logan on October 20.

However as Royal Examiner pointed out previously, the county code regarding provision of heating and cooling to a kennel does not cite space heaters and illegally wired electric to facilitate their use as the preferred means of providing adequate heating to kennel animals.

As for the contention the kennel wiring was illegal, county fire official Raymond Cross wrote in his report on the fire, “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.”

First contacted about his report after the February delay, Cross said he was fairly certain the referenced “male at the scene” was Wendy Tenney’s husband.

As Lorraine Smelser listens, County Planner Taryn Logan explains that Ms. Tenney has received no scrutiny any business requiring a conditional use permit would receive – especially in the wake of a fatal fire.

A history of warnings
Citing multiple violations of conditions of her original conditional use permit in the wake of the fatal fire, last year the county planning department forwarded a recommendation to the board of supervisors that her kennel permit be revoked. Issues cited in that revocation recommendation included:
* the warning from Animal Control about a space heater in the kennel with frayed wiring from believed dog chewing;
* No electrical permit for the kennel building;
* accumulated trash and feces in the kennel, the former cited in rapid spread of the March 6 fire;
* septic drainage toward neighboring properties and a consequent strong odor coming from the kennel property;
* a failure to license kennel dogs over a two-year period 2015-16;
* exceeding the maximum number of 11 permitted dogs by housing as many as “approximately 19” adult dogs;
* inoperable barking suppression collars;
* and repeated cancellations of scheduled county staff or animal warden visits without effort to reschedule.
And prior to the March 14 planning commission vote, Shenandoah District Commissioner Rinaldi noted he had been informed that Tenney was two years or more behind on some of her county tax payments. Tenney attorney Jay Neal told the planning commission on March 14 that situation would be rectified within a week.

Rinaldi, who prior to the March 14 vote asked Tenney and her attorney the hardest questions regarding her business model, past problems with compliance and delinquent business license fees and real estate and sales taxes, worried over the message the commission was sending with a recommendation of approval.

“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,” Rinaldi told Royal Examiner after the vote.

In response to a notice from the county planning department that a recommendation of revocation of her kennel permit would be forthcoming, Tenney wrote County Planning Official Matt Wendling, “If you really want to be understanding, and help and assist, let me rebuild and get on with my life, because this was a big part of it,” Tenney wrote, signing off, “In God Almighty’s Hands”.

Unfortunately for the animals in her kennel on March 6, 2017, God was not the responsible party for the condition of her kennel; violations of her original conditional use permit and apparent illegal wiring to facilitate a space heater as the means of compliance with county codes to provide comfortable and non-fatal care for her dogs.

On the wall of the Warren County Government Center above the board of supervisors heads is the epitaph “In God We Trust”.

On Tuesday, April 17, shortly after 7:30 p.m. we will find out if the county’s elected officials also trust Wendy Tenney to run a humane, safe and permit complaint commercial breeding kennel.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Mary McLaughlin

    April 14, 2018 at 10:13 am

    I believe that a change in county code regarding puppy mills would go a long way in improving their conditions. Require that any open runs be able to reach within 10 feet of the owner’s dwelling and all kennel facilities be within 40 feet of owner’s dwelling. That would encourage better sanitation and safety on the owner’s part and remove the kennels from the borders of neighbors property.

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