Dog lovers Maria and Raz Farinas are looking for a new home for their business–although right now they feel like they’re in the doghouse.
That’s because, due to zoning regulations, the Wilton couple needs to find a new location for their home-based dog-care business, Warrior Walkers. At last night’s meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), the board upheld the finding that the Farinases were in violation of town regulations and cannot continue to operate Warrior Walkers in their home.
The Farinases live on a 4.8-acre property on Belden Hill Rd., in an area that is zoned R-2A, or “residential two acres.” They were cited by the town’s zoning enforcement officer Tim Bunting for operating an unauthorized commercial kennel and dog daycare business on the property. The Farinases were sent a letter in February outlining their violations, and then in April were served a Cease and Desist Letter by a state marshal ordering them to close Warrior Walkers down. The letter specifies that, “Dogs are being boarded at this site that are not owned by the owner of the subject property,” and that, “Kennels are not a permitted use in this zone.”
Bunting found them in violation of four town zoning regulations: 1) operating a kennel or dog care business is not one of the property uses permitted in a residential zone; 2) their business is not one allowed by special permit in a residential zone; 3) they were operating without a permit; and 4) they were operating without a certificate of zoning compliance.
The Farinases sent a letter to Bunting stating their case, and filed an appeal with town’s Planning & Zoning Department. Their appeal was heard at Monday night’s Zoning Board of Appeals meeting.
They testified at the hearing, and noted that their hope was two-fold: to buy some time, allowing them to continue operating and earning a living while they finalized plans to open elsewhere; and to be able to continue fostering rescue dogs at home.
Bunting provided his evidence that Warrior Walkers is indeed a dog care business, including a Facebook page and website for their service. He said he was notified about the business by neighbor complaints about the number of dogs, excessive barking, and traffic queuing up on Belden Hill Rd. and on town property [ed. note–the Farinas house abuts the access road to Miller-Driscoll School.]
“Some of the complaints are that cars will line up when they’re coming to drop off animals or pick them up. Also quality of life issues with dogs barking all the time and at night, and the dogs being walked through the neighborhood,” Bunting said.
Also providing testimony at the hearing were the Farinases’ next door neighbors, Madeleine and Bob Louzan, who say the barking from the many dogs on the Farinases property has become an extreme nuisance at all times of the day, disrupting their quality of life and preventing them from being able to be in their own home without interference from excessive noise and traffic.
The Warrior Walkers Story
In an interview on Monday afternoon before the hearing, Maria Farinas told GOOD Morning Wilton‘s Kristin Johnson their story. It mirrors the testimony they provided at the hearing.
They started Warrior Walkers two years ago, but the Farinases have a longer history of being involved with animals. They began fostering dogs about five years ago after they got their first Arkansas rescue dog, Moose, from a rescue operation called Little Pink Shelter based in Westport. They now own six dogs of their own and often foster one or two other dogs at a time.
“When I looked over the regulations for zoning, I did not see that there were restrictions around how many dogs a family could own,” Maria recalls. “All of our dogs are licensed and registered in the town of Wilton, so how many dogs we own is on record.”
After Raz lost his job in 2014, and spent the next two years looking for work, until deciding that they could base a business on their passion for dogs.
“We always helped out family and friends by taking care of their dogs if they were headed out of town, or needed help on a particular day. Plus, many of our fosters were adopted by local families, who would often reach out to us in need of boarding or some sort of pet sitting service from us. One day we looked at each other and realized we could make a business out of it.”
The demand grew, and Warrior Walkers built a thriving business with a long client list. They say what differentiates their business is that Warrior Walkers offers an environment that feels more like home for their clients’ pets. In addition to overnight boarding, they offer day care in their home as well as visits at clients’ homes, and dog walking.
During Monday night’s meeting they said that they typically have 8-10 dogs at their property at any one time, and the maximum is 12–although later when asked if they’ve ever had 18 dogs at one time, they did say that has happened but is not the norm. They do not crate or cage any of the dogs, and their yard space is enclosed by physical and invisible fencing. They also said that the dogs are never unsupervised outside nor are the dogs outside at night.
After major growth, they consulted an accountant and applied for an LLC. In February, Maria says that they were preparing to register the business and confirm they were in compliance with zoning, when they received their first violation notice from the Town of Wilton.
They say an attorney suggested they not do anything, advice the family followed. In April came the Cease and Desist letter, which they appealed.
The Farinases have begun their search for a new home base, but finding the perfect fit was difficult because having this type of kind of home-based business requires being located in an adaptive use zone–something confined to Danbury Rd. and a portion of Cannon Rd..
They also don’t want to change their business model.
“We are limited because of the fact that we don’t want a mass production commercial facility,” Maria explains. “Keeping the feel of our house is very important to us and our clients and we feel it’s why we have become so successful.”
“Bob Nerney, Wilton’s town planner, has been very helpful,” Raz adds. “He understands how committed we are to the residents of Wilton and their pets and how important it is to us that we keep the business in Wilton. And he’s helped us understand where we should focus our search.”
The Farinas family has teamed up with Holly Chasin and her husband from Little Pink Shelter. They are currently in negotiations with Dr. Paula Belknap from the Cannondale Animal Clinic, who owns a house on Route 7 that they are hoping to lease and secure an adaptive use permit to run their business. The process has taken longer than anticipated.
Maria says being able to continue fostering rescue dogs is important to them. At the meeting she explained that there are rarely more than one or two foster dogs at any one time, and that foster dogs usually stay less than a week before being placed in a permanent home.
“We have placed so many homeless dogs because of how much fostering we do and are hoping to be able to bring more dogs up with the additional space and still use our home.”
She says that not being able to offer boarding and daycare, even just until they relocate, “will have major financial impact on our family if we are not given enough time to find the right spot and start it up.” During the ZBA meeting she said, “We are more than happy to, we’re in the middle of fixing it. But what happens if we are forced to completely shut down, and that’s how we are paying bills.”
She acknowledged understanding the regulations and that they are working to find a solution.
“I don’t think there’s discussion that we’re trying to hide there was a business going on there. We are trying to listen to our neighbors, by finding another place. We are desperately trying to find a place as quickly as we can. No one is fighting to keep a business in a residential zone. The point of my letter was to explain what we were doing and to let you know we were very much trying to abide by the zoning.”
During the meeting several clients spoke in support of the Farinases and told why they use Warrior Walkers’ services. They also testified that they felt the business was not something disruptive. One client, Robin Paradis, noted, “When I’ve been there, it’s not crazy and out of control, they’re well-cared for.”
Bob and Madeline Louzan have lived in the house next door to the Farinases property for 22 years. Madeleine told the ZBA members that the impact from the business has been extremely negative. “We can’t open the doors, it’s traffic of people coming in and out, walking dogs. My husband can’t come home and take a conference call, because of the dogs and you don’t know what will be disrupted.”
She continued. “Every weekend, the dogs are barking. It’s not all day long, it’s intermittent. But your quality of life is definitely different. I work from home, I have to keep all the windows shut, I have to be careful when I make phone calls. My husband can’t make phone calls and that’s his livelihood also. We’re not asking for anything terrible, but it has to follow the law. We’ve raised our kids here. That’s not fair to us either.”
She said that even if fostering was allowed to continue, they could not be assured that the disruption would cease.
“Where is that line, regardless if it’s for-profit or non-profit? 6? 10? 15? 50? It’s the same thing as a kennel, but you’re not receiving money.”
Later in the meeting, her husband Bob Louzan, spoke.
“I invite all of you to stay the whole day. The last two years I haven’t used an alarm clock because the dogs wake me up every day. They’re 180-200 feet away, it’s like they’re in my house every day. When my wife says I can’t make a phone call, you can’t anticipate [when], it’s different every single day. It’s disruptive–every single day. I appreciate they foster dogs. I have two myself. I love dogs. But I don’t want a dozen dogs next door. They’re all big dogs, the majority of them. If one of them gets loose–I have two boys, you have a school full of kids, I worry about that.”
He added that he was concerned about the increase in unfamiliar people in the proximity of the houses because of the business.
“There are occasionally cars, not from CT, from NY, I don’t know who’s coming in the house to walk the dogs. I don’t know who’s there, and I have four kids and a wife who is home all day. I worry about that. We didn’t have a problem until all this started, there’s just no consideration. Come spend the day.”
The ZBA Decision
Joshua Cole, the ZBA chair, reminded the attendees that the board had a specific purview in reviewing the appeal.
“Our function is limited to reviewing the decision of the zoning enforcement officer, to determine whether whether the violation, whether the cease and desist order was in compliance with the zoning regulations. I can appreciate this is an emotional issue. The board is limited in what it can consider. We can’t take into account economic factors or emotional issues. I say this as a dog owner myself, I’m sympathetic to the situation, but unfortunately we as a board are limited to looking to the letter of the law to determine whether what’s been issued is consistent with the zoning regulations.”
He then outlined each of the four separate regulations that the Farinases had been found to have violated, and detailed how were in violation. After each he said the same thing: “I don’t find any testimony or evidence to support overturning the violation that was issued.”
The other members of the board gave their opinions, all but one of which concurred with Cole’s. ZBA member Jaclyn Coleman inquired about delaying the board’s ruling to review the zoning code and become more familiar with it.
Others disagreed with the idea of adjourning without ruling.
“I’m not sure time would change the result that there would be documentary evidence to change anyone’s mind. Faced with situation that there is harm to neighbors, there would be an interest in coming to a quick decision, based on testimony we’ve heard. I’m inclined to make a motion to uphold the zoning enforcement officer,” Cole noted.
Coleman’s motion to postpone failed, and ultimately the board voted to uphold the violations that were issued and the cease and desist order, 4-0 with Coleman abstaining.
Cole did specify that their ruling pertained only to the boarding, kenneling and day care of dogs–that fostering dogs was considered different.
“I want to point out, there are two issues–the issue of a commercial boarding business, and the issue of fostering. That is not before our board. The violations issued have been for operation of the kennel and daycare. What we’re ruling on is the violations, separate issue from the fostering. If there’s another violation, I don’t know if the town has a limit on the number of dogs that any one person can have, but if there is that’s not the issue in front of the board tonight.”
Both Heather Borden Herve and Kristin Johnson contributed to this story. (Disclosure: both writers have used Warrior Walkers on occasion in the past.)