CARIBOU, Maine — The Caribou shelter that helps lost, stray and abandoned cats find new homes is in quite the quandary itself after city officials decreed that Halfway Home Pet Rescue volunteers can no longer operate their haven for homeless cats at 11 Pioneer Ave.
With the help of more than 25 volunteers who donate anywhere from four to 40 hours of their time per week to the shelter, the rescue organization’s president, Norma Milton, runs the nonprofit temporarily out of her own home, which is nestled in a residential zone. The group has been fundraising to purchase a permanent rescue residence that could accommodate dogs as well as cats, aiming to raise $85,000 over the next five years for their building fund. (They’ve raised about $4,500 to date).
But volunteers may be forced to expedite their moving endeavors, since the city has found the rescue to be in violation of zoning laws.
As of Monday, Milton was cautiously optimistic that city officials would resolve the matter appropriately.
“[Caribou City Manager] Steve Buck called me this afternoon, and we had a lovely conversation; he clarified that nobody wants to close this [shelter] down, and [the city] wants to work with us to help us try to relocate within a span of time that is reasonable,” she said on Monday evening.
Caribou Code Enforcement Officer Steve Wentworth agrees that the city has no intention of shutting HHPR down.
“It’s good to have a pet rescue in Caribou, [11 Pioneer Ave.] is just not a good location for it,” he said.
Halfway Home Pet Rescue is considered a kennel according to the current city ordinance, and kennels aren’t allowed in the specific residential area 11 Pioneer Ave. occupies. According to that same ordinance, any home with more than three pets is considered a kennel and not allowed in most residential zones.
While HHPR volunteers do not concede to their “kennel” classification by the city, Wentworth said there’s no other suitable definition.
“We only have the definition for kennel, and our definition for kennel is a bit ambiguous,” Wentworth said.
The State of Maine clearly differentiates between a shelter and a kennel, and the state recognizes HHPR as a shelter. HHPR recently passed their state licensing inspection with no issues.
But according to the current Caribou ordinance and zoning, the rescue operation will have to move.
“The building fund is the only thing that’s going to enable us to relocate,” Milton said. “It’s always been our intention to relocate, but we thought we’d have at least five years.”
The pet rescue was first issued a letter dated July 20 from the city of Caribou, informing Milton of the zoning violation and asking that she please cease operations of the pet rescue from her home; a date restriction was not listed in the letter.
There was initial confusion as to why the letter was sent — HHPR volunteers were told by city officials that a complaint was submitted against them, but when the Aroostook Republican asked Wentworth if a complaint had been filed again the shelter, he responded that “it’s an existing violation of the zoning ordinance.”
Wentworth said this week that all the city has done at this point was to bring [the zoning issue] to Milton’s attention in the hopes of working with the shelter to help them find a more suitable site to relocate.
But Milton received her second letter from the city on Aug. 26. It states: “The City of Caribou has been in communication with the State of Maine, Animal Welfare Program. The City of Caribou has requested that the Animal Welfare Program not renew the state license for the Halfway Home Pet Rescue as an Animal Shelter Facility at 11 Pioneer Avenue.”
Should the Animal Welfare Program heed the city’s advice and not reissue HHPR’s license, the shelter would not be allowed to maintain functions at its current location after Dec. 31, 2011 — meaning volunteers theoretically have four months to find, obtain and move into an appropriate location to continue their operations.
Milton is confident that it won’t get to that point.
“The city is willing to work with us,” she said.
Robyn Smith, Sharon Watson and Zachary Smith, who are all on the HHPR board of directors building committee, have been instrumental in communications between the shelter and city officials.
Taking a proactive approach to the zoning issue, they submitted a proposal to the planning board on Aug. 29, offering possible solutions and “addressing the inadequacy of the ordinance,” Smith said.
“We’re hoping to work with the planning board in allowing us to continue operating at our temporary location while we increase efforts to establish a permanent site,” Robyn Smith said.
But the three are also hoping to change language of the ordinance.
“One of the issues we have with the ordinance is that it restricts a home in a residential zone to three animals,” Smith added. “If you’re going to enforce that at 11 Pioneer Avenue, you’re going to have to enforce that in any residential zone.”
According to Wentworth, the city and its residents have been cooperative about violations in the past: when complaints have been made to the city (usually about barking dogs) where people have had more than three canines at their home, the city has brought the violation to the residents’ attention. As a dog dies and the number of dogs is reduced, “the owner maintains the required amount of dogs and the complaints stop,” he said.
But Wentworth also agrees that the ruling document could be clearer.
“There’s definitely room for improvement in our ordinance,” he said.
Volunteers with HHPR already work at a sprinting pace trying to keep up with all the services they offer to area felines and their owners — and the shelter only accepts pets after they’ve been rejected from every other possible location. But they’re also trying to step up efforts to raise funds for a new facility where everyone can be happy — dogs, cats, volunteers and city officials alike.
Individuals interested in helping the shelter can contribute to their building fund, but Milton understands times are tough for everyone.
That’s why she’s actively seeking help in orchestrating the shelter’s coming fundraisers.
“We need at least 10 people to help set up and run our garage sale on Sept. 10 and 11 at 8 Pleasant Street,” Milton said. Those interested in volunteering their time to help the shelter reach its building fund goal can call Milton at 492-1722.
Information about the shelter and fundraisers can be obtained by visiting its website at www.halfwayhomepetres-cue.org.
The shelter’s mailing address is P.O. Box 488, Caribou, Maine 04736.