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Neighbors explode over plan for service dog training facility
The public rollout for a proposed service dog training facility turned ugly Tuesday, with neighbors cutting off presenters, criticizing city planning staff and blasting the project every which way for over an hour.
Things began innocuously as architect Charlie Wenzlau introduced his clients, Mo and Will Maurer and their nonprofit organization, Assistance Dogs of Hawaii (ADH), which specializes in rearing service dogs for people with profound physical disabilities.
Since ADH’s founding in 1995, the Maurers have graduated more than 50 dogs, who have gone on to serve in courthouses, where they comfort child victims or witnesses of crimes; nursing homes and hospitals, where they provide love and companionship to staff and patients; and individual homes, where they anticipate seizures, alert deaf partners to various sounds (smoke alarms, telephones, baby’s crying), and assist partners with physical disabilities (pulling wheelchairs, retrieving out-of-reach objects and turning on lights, for example).
In the past, these dogs always stayed in Hawaii, but as the program’s success and reputation have grown, its demand and reach have, too, which is why the Maurers are now seeking to build an island campus.
The facility, which would be built on a 4.3-acre parcel off of Ridge Lane, would function as a Northwest headquarters, where four to five dogs would live with a caretaker in a 1,730-square-foot home, undergoing 18 months of rigorous training in an adjacent 1,880-square-foot teaching barn. The dogs would graduate only if they were able to memorize 90 commands, customized to their prospective partner’s unique needs, and able to pass extensive health and temperament screenings.
Twice a year, the facility would host a two-week Team Training Camp, during which two students would live on-site (the plan calls for three exterior entrances to the residence), working with their canine matches to learn the 90 commands and receive training on canine care and psychology.
The site plan calls for 10 parking spaces to accommodate two to three staff and visitors. Traffic would be low, ADH staff stressed during the presentation, encompassing visits from a few student volunteers (five times a week), puppy trainers (once a week), and workplace readiness students (one or two students, twice a week). Twice a year, the Maurers would host an open house, for no more than 50 people, and an eight-hour continuing education class. Otherwise, the facility would be closed to the public, accessible only by appointment.
Strong island ties
For Mo Maurer, who attended Roosevelt High School and had “some of [her] happiest memories on Bainbridge Island,” the property at Ridge Lane seemed like the ideal location for the program.
“A lot of our supporters are from this area,” she explained, mentioning the Jacobi and Blossom families, who sold the parcel to the nonprofit.
The historic Bucklin Hill Farm, which is across the street from the site, used to have a school for disabled children, which is a neat parallel to ADH’s mission, Maurer added.
She was also excited about her neighbors — Hyla Middle School, the American Legion Hall and the fire station just to the east — who stand to benefit from ADH’s community outreach programs.
“Because we have a volunteer program for students, we like having a school nearby,” Maurer said.
But, as was apparent Tuesday, not everybody is thrilled about the project, namely residential neighbors. A half dozen higher-end homes flank the site to the north and to the west.
Many of those residents and others from the Stetson Ridge neighborhood showed up to the meeting with complaints.
Initially, their comments were mild, dealing with the site plan: contention that there’s not a pre-existing continuous 25-foot perimeter of trees, concerns about traffic and building placement, questions about fencing.
But the mood went from skeptical to antagonistic fast.
“Is this the only parcel on Bainbridge Island that would be conducive to your purpose?” one neighbor asked. “And are there other parcels? Because I know the answer. There’s tremendous numbers of land that would be zoned agricultural that would be conducive to this without any objection. Why are you putting it here as opposed to the other hundreds of acres that are available on Bainbridge Island?”
“We were looking for something with open space and acreage, somewhere where we wouldn’t have to cut down any trees and this was the only parcel that had that amount of acreage that was open,” Maurer said.
“I beg to differ,” the man replied.
As angry outbursts and interruptions grew, Wenzlau reminded the group — repeatedly — that the plan, which is in the pre-application stage, has not been approved or finalized.
“We’re at the very beginning of the process,” Wenzlau said, as he invited community members to share their concerns with planning staff.
The process could take up to four months, he stressed, and the community would have plenty of opportunity to voice their concerns to both the design review board and the hearings examiner.
But Wenzlau’s assurances didn’t really abate the hostile climate in the room.
Soon, audience members were peppering city planner Heather Beckmann with questions about the project’s conditional use permit and classification as an educational center versus a kennel.
“When you look at the definition, do you follow U.S. definition or U.S. tax or U.S. law or is it the council’s choice?”
“It’s a weird request to make in a residential lot designed for single-family homes. It seems to me like the comprehensive plan precludes this kind of use right off the bat. Isn’t the goal here to protect the land and protect the zone?”
“I take exception to your interpretation of ‘It’s not a kennel’ and my 16-year-old daughter does, too. How it is a commercial residence not mixed-use, and how is the training of dogs not a service?”
On and on it went, the more polite participants pausing to raise their hands. Others started to argue with the planner, who remained calm and delivered a clear explanation: Uses don’t always fit neatly into a definition.
“When we looked at the kennel definition, it seemed pretty clear to us, because they’re not boarding, breeding or treating animals for profit,” she said.
“And the other thing that we looked at was where are other kennels allowed throughout the county. We did some calls to look at other kennels. Other kennels, you’re looking at up to 70 animals being boarded, very high numbers.
“Sometimes, when we’re not really clear, when things don’t neatly fit into a definition, we look outside the city to see what other uses are similar to this,” Beckmann continued. “As we read through the impacts, when you think of kennels, you think of noise and lighting and different impacts a kennel can have. We didn’t see that this facility met your traditional kennel. The dogs are indoors. Most kennels are outdoors. So reading through this and looking through the impacts of a traditional kennel, this does not meet [that definition]. In our mind, education is the main component of this facility. It’s the teaching of animals and the teaching of owners. And we can argue this all day...”
She didn’t get to finish her statement because of the clamor, which merited a rebuke: “Let me make this clear,” Beckmann said firmly. “The point of this meeting is not to argue whether you agree or disagree. I’d love to hear why you don’t agree with it but I don’t want to get into a back-and-forth argument. Again, I don’t make the final decision. We do want to hear your concerns about it and you can submit those comments throughout the process. But this is where we stand tonight.”
That wasn’t the end of it, though. Beckmann and Wenzlau agreed that they were willing to press on. And the audience continued to hammer them.
“You never really answered my earlier question about the fences,” one woman said to Wenzlau. “You tried to describe what they were but you never answered where on the property they would be and also clarifying what the entrance itself would be like. How far around the perimeter, where on the property is the fencing? So right on the road? Well, right on the perimeter of your building? And what is the entrance to the parking lot like, again? Is it gated? And what sort of lighting would you have on the buildings?”
Next, came the riffraff argument. A resident expressed alarm over “who or what will be coming into our neighborhood.”
He didn’t want to worry about the safety of his two small children running around unsupervised, he bemoaned, adding that he already works in Pioneer Square and shouldn’t have to “come home to this.”
“It’s a great program,” he granted. “I’ve had epilepsy since I was 6 years old. I have friends who have seizure service dogs. But it does not make sense.”
Some voice support
A few lone voices spoke out on behalf of the project toward the end.
One woman, who stated she was not a neighbor, told the community she understood their reservations, but asked them to imagine what could be placed on the site instead: four houses, each with three dogs and maybe teenagers.
Was 12 dogs more desirable?
Before she could finish, a neighbor bellowed: “Yeah. I’m imagining four good families who we know. We can get to know their kids.”