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Board denies dog breeding variance for Hope couple

COLUMBUS, Ind. –The Bartholomew County Zoning Appeals Board has denied a farming couple permission to raise dogs in a converted tractor-trailer northwest of Hope for the second time in three years.

Aaron and Lena Oberholtzer of 9173 E. County Road 950N, Hope, had applied for a conditional use application for a license to operate a home-based business involving dog breeding. The application was denied Monday night by a 4-1 vote, with city/county planning staff noting that the facility was currently operating in violation of zoning rules.

Aaron Oberholtzer told BZA members that he has eight male and 13 female dogs that annually produce about 35 to 36 puppies inside a tractor-trailer on his residential property.

But when asked which government agency would regulate his home-based business, Oberholtzer said he was unaware of any specific agency with that authority. As board members demanded specific numbers regarding his proposed operation, Oberholtzer said there were many unknowns and he was “just giving a rough idea of ​​the numbers.”

During the public hearing, one of the 12 speakers who spoke by telephone or videoconference said she was embarrassed by Aaron Oberholtzer’s lack of precision.

“He hesitated or mumbled when asked if he knew the state and county regulations,” Marion Kessens said.

Two Columbus lawyers who both represent different groups were the first to speak at the public hearing. Jeff Rocker explained the reasons the city/county planners recommended the application be denied.

The Oberholtzers have already been illegally operating a kennel out of a tractor-trailer for about four years, which does not appear to be permanently fixed to the ground, Rocker said. All of this is in violation of local laws and regulations, he said. Also, it doesn’t appear that some of the selling of dogs takes place at home, which is necessary for a home-based business, the lawyer said.

During his presentation, Rocker read part of a letter from the US Humane Society which states that Oberholtzers should be required to have a license if they have more than five breeding females. The couple have more than double that number, but currently have no license, according to those who oppose the establishment.

“We additionally have a history of violations which gives me a fairly low level of confidence that (the Oberholtzers) will comply whether (the BZA) approves of them or not,” Rocker said.

The other lawyer, Lia Elliott, is also a board member of CARE (Community Animal Rescue Effort, Inc.). In his testimony. Elliott said thousands of people have signed an online petition against this type of dog breeding. She also pointed to local ordinances and restrictions that state neither on-site sales nor ancillary structures are permitted for a home-based business.

While Elliott said this particular case could deal with animal welfare issues, as well as the potential for consumer deception and tax evasion, she also told the board she wanted to focus only on zoning issues.

“Once you remove all the emotion and passion that animal welfare and commercial breeding can ignite, I think we are left with a simple problem of a candidate asking you for special treatment,” Elliott said. “And the opposition urges council not to take the special exemption route, but rather to take the easier route based on applicable zoning ordinances.”

It was not the first time the Oberholtzers had come before the council asking for permission to run a dog farm. About 300 naysayers came forward in January 2018, when the couple applied for conditional use permission to raise up to 100 small dogs a year on their 55 acres of farmland unconnected to their home.

This application was rejected by the BZA by a vote of 4 to 1. The consensus among board members in 2018 was that a large dog kennel is not the best use of land zoned as primary farmland .

The third speaker at Monday’s public hearing was Kirsten VantWoud, shelter manager for the Bartholomew County Humane Society, who described this type of dog breeding as an “unregulated, growing and often cruel business model that is located in Bartholomew County”.

According to VantWoud, the number of licensed dog breeders in Indiana has grown from 272 in 2018 to 412 this year. At the same time, the number of puppy brokers has grown from just two in 2018 to 32 this year.

“Our nonprofit Humane Society has complied with county orders in the past, and it’s reasonable to expect for-profit businesses to do the same,” VantWoud told the BZA. “However, in this case, the owners did not even attempt to comply for over three years.”

After claiming the proposed kennel could hurt property values, neighbor Julie Essex estimated the family made at least $46,800 a year from the sale of dogs.

“I would challenge Mr. Oberholtzer to hand over his tax returns so we can see how much he pays in sales tax,” Essex said.

Another speaker, Nancy Ray, said if the BZA allowed the couple to run their kennel from a tractor-trailer outside their home, it would set a bad precedent that many others would exploit in the future.

Kate O’Halloran referred to a published article in which Aaron Oberholtzer described his dog-breeding business as a “family hobby”. Several speakers said the family charged between $1,200 and $2,000 each per puppy sold. O’Halloran said it’s conceivable that their annual earnings could be as high as $120,000.

“I don’t think the IRS calls it a family hobby,” O’Halloran said.

Other key issues raised during the public hearing were multiple levels of liability, a potential health risk from dog feces, and veterinary care.

In addition to the dozen speakers, the planning department also received seven letters and three emails. All but one were opposed to the dog breeding establishment.

Following the public hearing, council members Eric Scheidt and Arnold Haskell debated for several minutes whether the breeding and sale of dogs should be classified as agriculture. The matter was resolved by Deputy City/County Planner Melissa Begley, who read part of an ordinance that establishes that raising and selling dogs is not considered farming in the county. by Bartholomew.

Scheidt was the only BZA member to vote in favor of the couples’ request in the 4-1 decision. Oberholtzers can’t make a similar request for at least a year, Begley said. If the couple make significant changes to their application and submit the paperwork, it will be up to board members to hear the new proposal within a year, she said.

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