PAWSibilities needs your help! Please read and share this story with everyone you can. We need your help to stay open!!![Disclaimer: The following is written by Brad Derstine and I have been a PAWS volunteer since 2010. I attended both township meetings, I host the PAWS website, and provide computer support for PAWS, and wanted to share the facts of the situation so everyone can understand what’s going on. I hope this story inspires you to get involved and help a great group with a great cause doing great work!]
PAWSibilities Animal Rescue (our about page) operates out of the barn along Mainland Rd in Harleysville, PA, about 1 mile off the Lansdale exit of the PA Turnpike’s northeast extension. The 2.2 acre property has 2 main buildings and a number of parking spaces for customers and visitors. Currently, the main building is used by Sher Photography as a photo studio and office and the second building is a barn built in the 1700’s. The barn and the property has served a number of uses over the years as a blacksmith, to a coffin maker and funeral home, and as a barn for housing and storing livestock and is a part of the rich culture of the Montgomery County, PA area. The barn is a recognizable landmark when exiting off the turnpike that shows exactly how far back this area has agricultural roots. Over the years, the area has changed significantly with many new housing developments and commercial spaces, but the barn has served the county and township residents for over 200+ years and definitely shows its age. The main building on the property used by the photo studio was built in the 1770’s. When the property was bought in 1995 by Sher Carroll, Sher was required to apply for a zone variance to allow for the commercial use by Sher Photography because of the residential zoning. She applied and was approved for the variance. Sher made the required business improvements, to the house and the barn was used by her then 8 year old daughter Samantha to raise sheep and goats and participate in Montgomery County 4H program. Sam started PAWS in 2009. It was then used to house and support local cats, rabbits, ducks, and chickens who needed help or new homes, but was very much still a barn from the 1700’s, spider webs and all. But the cats and other animals didn’t mind so we did the best we could with what we had.
During 2011 and finishing in 2012, the part of Sumneytown Pike/Route 63 in front of PAWSibilities was moved to improve the intersections at Wambold Road and at Old Forty Foot Road. The old part of Sumneytown in front of our building is now identified as part of Mainland Road. Since they modified and moved the road, the end of Mainland now curves sharply to the left in order to intersect with Sumneytown before the Old Forty Foot Road intersection. During rush hour in the mornings, drivers use Mainland Road to cut around the backup that builds on Sumneytown Pike which brings speeders and distracted drivers through Mainland Rd. During the evening, drivers don’t notice the change in direction at the end of Mainland Rd, so if they are traveling any speed over 35 mph, they slam on the brakes and either skid to a stop or slam into the curb damaging their car. There are a lot of skid marks and we constantly hear screeching brakes and multiple accidents from plenty of distracted, speeding drivers.
During the summer of 2013, we were concerned for the safety of the people and the feral cats and ducks who cross the street, so Sher placed some cones and cat crossing signs near the road. When that did not seem to help, she moved a few cones into the middle of the road, however cars and trucks were still speeding and crashing. Eventually, someone called Towamencin Township who needed to come out and inspect. They told us to remove the cones from the road which we did. They noticed our dumpster was in the wrong location (who knew?) and that cat adoption signs were posted without permits.
Because the complaint was forwarded to the township, the township is required to come out. The complaint and citation happened in June 2013, and the township sent out Bill Webb who was recently hired in May 2013 by Towamencin to serve as zoning officer. Bill determined the residential zoning with usage variance applied to only Sher Photography, not a business called PAWSibilities Rescue. Sher discussed the agricultural zoning of the property and the usage of the shelter being agricultural was not a violation of the zoning in her understanding. Mr. Webb disagreed and cited PAWS for operating without a permit in the township on a residential property.
The rescue has always operated with the expectation that the barn and the animals was considered agricultural and would be used only for the purpose of storing livestock which included the cats and other small farm animals. If the barn was required to be compliant with residential or commercial building requirements, then that meant significant modifications to the barn that are unfeasible and unrealistic for a barn housing animals. But that never stopped PAWS from investing in the safety of shelter volunteers and cats by ensuring the structural integrity of the barn and adding smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, exit signs and egress.
Neither PAWS or Sher Carroll realized a permit was required for businesses to operate in a township. Towamencin has no business guidelines book, as do some other municipalities.
PAWS hired a zoning lawyer and applied for a zoning variance or exception to have the township accept the shelter under the PA Commonwealth Right to Farm Act. Township officials did not seem interested in closing the shelter and seemed agreeable to work with us toward a resolution so the good work of PAWS in the community could continue.
The First Zoning Hearing
The first hearing was schedule for Oct 6, 2013. Taken from the Towamencin Township website…
The Zoning Hearing Board is a three member volunteer board appointed by the Board of Supervisors of the Township and they have one alternate. The Zoning Hearing Board, as provided by the Municipalities Planning Code of Pennsylvania, are empowered with exclusive jurisdiction to hear and decide the following:
5. applications for variances;
6. applications for special exceptions;
A hearing was scheduled so PAWS could plead our case for the variance or exception and Sher and Sam were given a chance to testify about the operations of PAWS and the impact we had on the community and surrounding areas. They shared the entire background of the property, the changes made since the initial 1995 purchase by Sher, and how the barn was receiving minimal upkeep, until Sam started the animal adoption center in 2009. They explained how the barn is used only for storing and caring for livestock (sheep, goats, a horse, chicken and ducks) and included cats in that description based on the agricultural laws of Pennsylvania. And in 2010 when it registered for 501c3 non-profit status, the rescue started receiving money in donations that it was able to use towards improving the barn, for the housing and caring of the cats and livestock, and investing in the safety of the volunteers and groups who help keep it clean and running. They also explained the services they provided to the community including re-homing cats from homeowners who lost their houses, temporarily foster of cats for service members going overseas and the homeless, and offering community service and volunteer opportunities to groups and special needs programs for people with disabilities. They have the support of the Christ Covenant Church which owns the property right next to PAWS, the large working farm to the rear, Stewarts Bird Farm, and many other animal rescue groups in the area including Philly ACCT and the PSPCA.
However the good work of the group does not outweigh the need to be legal and compliant within the Towamencin Township and Montgomery County so Sher and Sam applied to the township zoning board for that exception. During the hearing, there was some confusion about what requirements PAWS was required to meet. No one is living in the barn so it shouldn’t be considered residential, and we were not running a retail commercial business , so meeting commercial space needs is unrealistic. At issue is a barn built in the 1700’s used for agricultural purposes, on a property zoned for residential/agricultural purposes. The main building (covered by the original commercial variance) meets all requirements for commercial retail space, and includes some additional features like a bathroom and laundry room area for PAWS volunteers since there is no running water in the barn.
The township zoning officer, the zoning board solicitor (a solicitor is a lawyer for the township zoning board), and the 3 board members and 1 alternate member were reviewing the information provided including the testimony of Sher and Sam, and decided to have a continuance in order to have a building inspector do an inspection and get some clarification. A second hearing date was set and the first meeting was closed.
The Second Zoning Hearing
Following the first hearing, the building inspector came to visit the barn however he was not clear on what he was inspecting for, since it is a barn and obviously did not meet any residential or commercial zoning requirements. He did find the fire extinguishers proactively installed by PAWS, and the heat and a/c units which are provided to control the temperature in the barn during extreme hot or cold days, but there are not a lot of other features to the building since it’s a barn. The report he filed with the township said that the building did not meet commercial ADA requirements which is true, however it did not mention the fire safety items in place, only the lack of “lighted exit signs and an automatic door for ADA accessibility”. Unable to question the inspector since he did not attend the meeting, PAWS lawyer objected to the report. A request for another continuance to get more clarification and have another independent inspection was denied and the hearing moved forward.
Additional information was presented during the second hearing that clarified some of the zoning confusion about the property. Sher was able to share a document that shows the agriculture zoning as listed on the zoning map dated 1992. The property and Harleysville-Kulpsville area in general where the barn is located at has changed significantly over the years, and issues like this are exactly why exceptions and variances exist. PAWS just wants to be able to operate as we always have and is willing meet certain requirements, within reason, and all as stated by the PA Commonwealth for farm buildings. The safety of the cats and our volunteers has always been very important and we have invested financially in the care and feeding of animals as well as safety needs for our volunteers and groups we work with. We presented all of this information and filled the hearing room for a second meeting in a row with supporters and township residents who wanted to see us stay open.
The following materials were submitted during the second hearing to help clarify PAWS use of the property…