GUILFORD — The owner of a wildlife rehabilitation facility ordered by the town in February to cease operations until a special permit has been granted, appeared before the Planning and Zoning Commission and a zoom audience of more than 90 people for a public hearing Wednesday night.
Eunice Demond is one of about 15 people in Connecticut with a state permit to handle rabies vector species, those identified as the most common carriers of rabies virus — raccoons, skunks, bats, woodchucks and foxes. She has been operating Little Rascals Rescue and Rehabilitation behind her home at 311 Old Whitfield St., in a residential zone, since about 2012. Demond primarily rescues and rehabilitates baby raccoons before releasing them back into the environment.
“What we’re asking is to continue to allow us to house up to 25 raccoons, that are permitted under a license, and 15 possums. Occasionally we get a squirrel or a woodchuck. Primarily the season is the spring to the fall. This is not really a winter activity,” explained Attorney Thomas Crosby, who represented Demond at the hearing.
On Jan. 7, the town zoning enforcement officer, Erin Mannix, issued a cease and desist order to Demond for operating in a residential area without a permit and for building an accessory building without a certificate of zoning compliance. Mannix had received a complaint from abutters Bill Freeman and Alicia Dolce regarding the operation in November 2020.
On Feb. 5, Crosby filed an appeal to the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, which is still pending.
Crosby told the commission that his client was applying for a special permit for wildlife rescue and rehabilitation under the town’s philanthropic provision, which allows philanthropic institutions that are not conducted as a business or for profit to operate by special permit in residential zones.
He said Little Rascals Rescue is part of DP Rescue in Bristol, a 501c3 organization which Demond serves as acting secretary.
“DP is an overarching rescue operation of which Eunice Demond is a member secretary on the board. That organization is an ‘umbrella’ [under which] board members operate their wildlife rescues,” he said.
Board Chair Philip Johnson said the commission would need for clarification on the philanthropic structure of the organization.
Demond explained to the commission that she is not paid for her work.
“I absolutely do not get paid. All my time is donated. I may receive a few donations when somebody drops off the animal. There’s no pay, everything comes out of my pocket, if it’s food or vaccinations. Sometimes a vet will give me a break. Sometimes they don’t charge me at all if they’re seeing an animal with a broken leg and it may need surgery, or they may need a vaccination or an antibiotic… sometimes they’ll charge me for it. There’s absolutely no money making when you’re being a wildlife rehabilitator. You’re doing it for the love of the animals and that’s it.”
Johnson answered that not making money did not necessarily define the organization as a nonprofit.
Mannix said the town ordinances allow wildlife sanctuaries and nature preserves, when not conducted as a business or for profit, in all residential zones.
Johnson said the commission would need additional clarification on the definition of a wildlife sanctuary.
A separate town ordinance enacted in 1991 prohibits the feeding and sheltering of wild animals, including raccoons, feral cats, foxes and coyotes.
Johnson said the conflict with the town ordinance made the decision difficult for the commission.
“I hope you can appreciate that it’s somewhat problematic for us to grant a special permit that’s in direct conflict with an ordinance,” Johnson said.
Ordinance aside, Demond and her rescue and rehabilitation facility have received more than 50 letters of support. The town has received about five letters in opposition.
Laurie Fortin, a wildlife biologist with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection who has visited Demond’s facility since 2015, wrote a letter in support of Demond and her work.
“Being that Eunice is one of approximately 15 people in the state able to care for raccoons and that 300 or more raccoons are found orphaned each summer, you can imagine that a wildlife rehabilitator receives numerous pleas for help with baby raccoons. On average raccoon rehabbers in small home-based facilities are caring for at least 10 and as many as 40 animals per year and are turning away numerous others,” Fortin wrote.
Attorney Marjorie Shansky, who represented neighbors Freeman and Dolce, told the commission that Demond’s operation was a rehabilitation facility for injured or orphaned animals, “which is a beautiful thing in and of itself, but in the wrong location.”
She said the facility does not qualify as an animal sanctuary and town regulations do not include animal rehabilitation as a use, disqualifying Demond’s request for a special permit.
“This is not a permitted use in the town of Guilford zoning regulations. A special permit cannot be ascribed to a situation, if it is not in the list of uses that are permitted by special permit. And, to sort of tortuously suggest that because ‘I don’t make any money at it,’ it qualifies as philanthropic is not a use that you can recognize by a special permit because your regulations are silent on the issue of animal rehabilitation.”
Crosby asked the commission to waive the requirement for a professional site plan, citing the nonprofit status of Demond’s operation.
Johnson said he had safety concerns about the lack of a professionally developed site plan.
“We, town staff, the health department, and all the people that are associated in connection with overseeing [the facility] need to have a real understanding about what is going on… so that we’re not kind of guessing as to where things are and whether or not these are compliant in their current location or not.”
After discussion, the commission voted unanimously not to waive the requirement for a professional site plan for the project.
The public hearing was continued to the Planning and Zoning meeting of July 7.