Dogged daycare: Play yard shut down

Happy dogs don't always make neighbors happy. That's the message for All Things Pawssible, a doggie daycare in an industrial park off Albemarle Street near Bodo's.

While scores of area families have dropped off their four-legged friends for a day of romping, rollicking, and relaxation, the occupants of the lone dwelling in the industrial area consider the daycare's new outdoor play yard a dirty and noisy menace. And it seems the City agrees: The play yard was shut down on July 15 for failure to obtain a special use permit.

When All Things opened back in January 2002, owners Sean Julian and Karen Quinn accurately predicted huge demand. More than 185 dogs have used the daycare since it opened, and nearly 500 have come in for training. Business was so good, in fact, that Julian and Quinn planned to expand into an adjacent house and open a large play yard for the pups.

The pair spent nearly $2,000 preparing the 3,000 square-foot yard– putting down mulch and erecting a six-foot privacy fence. Then came the heavy spring rains. In one torrential downpour, much of the mulch washed under the fence and out of the yard, clogging a culvert in the adjacent yard.

Julian says he cleaned up the runoff, and he and Quinn set to work sealing the bottom of the fence. They also put down gravel in one particularly wet area to further prevent runoff.

"We wanted to be good neighbors," Julian says. But the homeowners, Sarah and Ernest Terrell, tell a different story.

"No one ever came to talk to us," Sarah says. She and her husband felt that little consideration was extended to them and to the fact that their basement filled with water because the culvert had clogged with mulch. After what she describes as an "unpleasant" exchange between Karen Quinn and her daughter, Kelly, Terrell decided to go to a City Council meeting to see if there was anything she and her husband could do to "protect ourselves and our property."

Mayor Maurice Cox paid the Terrells a visit to determine whether the complaint was valid.

"A nightmare," is how Cox describes the vacant lot the Terrells' brand new porch overlooks. Though no dogs were present during his visit– the yard had already been closed– he says imagining the scene wasn't difficult. "My observation," he says, "is that no City resident would live next door to what I saw."

Sarah Terrell says she wants people to know she's not an animal hater. "We have dogs," she says. "My biggest concern is having something like this in the city. When you have as many dogs as you have in that yard, the noise is a little overwhelming."

Terrell says she saw dog waste sitting unattended– though she acknowledges it was always picked up eventually. But, she says, the dogs often went behind two large bushes where scooping is difficult. She says she fears fecal runoff could contaminate her yard and pose health risks.

Quinn and Julian disagree. "We clean up everything," Quinn contends, "the second it happens."

In response to the noise issue, Quinn gestures to the group of 33 active pups in her care. Though none are barking incessantly, there are a few errant yips.

"Shusssh," she says, and, without exception, every dog in the place falls silent. "We've worked very hard on training them to be quiet," she says. "If we have a dog with a barking issue, we ask them not to return."

She points out that the business is open only during daylight and weekday hours– from 7:30am to 5:30pm– so nighttime and weekend noise isn't an issue.

Zoning administrator Barbara Venerus says cleanliness was not an issue during her visits. The only problem was Quinn and Julian's failure to acquire a special use permit. Quinn and Julian's site plan– required for such a permit– goes before City Council on August 6.

It's likely they'll have some company at that meeting. The two certainly have their share of supporters, including their landlord, Bill Nitchmann, who says, "I take my dog there occasionally. I wouldn't do that if it wasn't clean and well supervised."

Laura Sharp, a placement coordinator for the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA, calls All Things a "wonderful" and "immaculate" place– even though her own dog was asked to leave. ("He was just too much.")

She's especially frustrated by the City's position. "We live in a city that has problems with unsocialized, aggressive, chained dogs in people's back yards," Sharp rages. "That's okay. But it's not okay to have a business that's immaculately clean, catering to responsible dog owners? It's ridiculous."

Accolades alone, however, are not enough to reopen the yard, and Quinn and Julian feel they were misled.

"We were told by the City's zoning department that having the play yard was a by-right use of our land," she says. "It is our fault that we failed to get a special use permit, but had we been given the correct information, we certainly would have followed that rule."

The City doesn't deny that one of its staffers, who has since departed, may have supplied erroneous information.

Meanwhile, obtaining a special use permit can take months– and there's no guarantee it will ever come through, although Pampered Pets, a grooming and boarding business just blocks away, has a large outdoor run.

Quinn and Julian say it's hard to accept the possibility that their play yard may become history. In addition to the improvements to the yard, the duo had recently hired new staff and accepted more clients– many of whom they now must turn away.

"We're back to having a waiting list," Quinn says. She estimates the closure is costing them $600 a week.

Mayor Cox says they have good reason to fear. Although he concedes that the Terrells' house lies in an industrial neighborhood, he claims that they have a right to set limits on what type of businesses locate next door.

"They've been there for 40 years," he says. "It's not the same neighborhood now as it was when they bought their home."

Zoning official Jim Herndon points out that the industrial zoning goes back further than 40 years. "That area was zoned industrial by 1958," he says.

And Sarah Terrell acknowledges she's known she lives in an industrial neighborhood since 1963 when she moved from the Vinegar Hill neighborhood into the house at age 13. The house– originally owned by her aunt– was passed on to her, and she has no desire to leave.

"To anyone who says I'm being unfair," she says, "ask yourself: Would I live next door to this?" She– and Cox– believe the answer to that question is a resounding no.

Meanwhile, Quinn and Julian are hoping that better drainage and five fast-growing Leyland Cyprus trees along the fence line between the two properties will convince the City that the dog yard can coexist with the Terrells.

Quinn and Julian have also begun circulating a petition to demonstrate the groundswell of support they believe exists for their business.

Standing in the yard, gesturing toward the open doors of the daycare proper, Quinn stops and listens. "There are nearly 35 dogs here today," she says. "It's very quiet."

But Terrell says it's hard for her to imagine a compromise. While trees would screen the area from sight, Terrell says, "I can't imagine it addressing any of the noise issues or the smell issue. It's 'dog smell'– even if they're clean, dogs have an odor."