by Jennifer Chick
A public hearing of a zoning ordinance change in Eureka Township is stirring a debate about whether large felines and wolves can be kept in the township.
Township residents will be debating the definitions of agri-tourism, exotic animals and fur-bearing animals as one resident seeks to amend zoning ordinances at a public hearing Thursday.
Terri Petter, owner of Fur-Ever Wild, a farm in Eureka Township, is seeking to amend zoning ordinances to add agri-tourism to the permitted agricultural land use ordinance while also clarifying that fur-bearing animals are excluded from the township’s exotic animal ban. Petter also operates a nonprofit, Wolves-Woods & Wildlife.
According to USDA records, Petter, as of a Jan. 4, 2013, had two arctic foxes, 17 black-tailed prairie dogs, one bobcat, one Canadian lynx, two fisher martens, 23 grey wolves, six North American porcupines, seven raccoons, seven red foxes, two southern opossums, six striped skunks, 26 goats, five pigs, two eastern cottontail rabbits, and four pumas at her agricultural operation in Eureka Township.
Petter has filed a text amendment to change the township’s zoning ordinance to allow for agri-tourism under the definition of agricultural operations. She said the township has never had an ordinance that addressed agri-tourism yet they have allowed apple orchards, corn mazes and pick-your-own-vegetable farms. She wants the ordinance to also allow her farm tour operation and sees no difference between her operation and those already allowed, except that she is regulated and licensed by the USDA and state.
“We are trying to neaten up the ordinances so there is no confusion,” she said. “There are conflicts with what they are telling me I can’t do, but they are letting other people already do.”
At Fur-Ever Wild, Petter has been allowing families and educational groups to view her animals since November 2011, but she has now been told by the township that she cannot exhibit those animals to the public. This most current issue stems from a barn fire in 2010. After she rebuilt the barn in 2011, the township intervened, saying she could not occupy the new building because it was not considered an agricultural building.
Paul Reuvers, an attorney with Iverson, Reuvers and Condon of Bloomington, is representing the township in the legal matter. He said Petter was told that her building did not fall within the agricultural building permit she applied for since it appeared the building would be used as a public facility. Petter said as the two sides tried to work something out, she became frustrated with the township and filed a lawsuit to get back into her barn. The township then brought a lawsuit of its own, contesting she was not complying with the township’s ordinance, which stated the building could only be used for agricultural uses.
Reuvers said there are actually two issues at play right now. First, Petter is running an exhibition and charging admission, something not covered in current Eureka Township zoning laws, he said, and she is housing exotic animals. The township has put its litigation on hold, waiting to see what the township Planning Commission does with Petter’s amendments to the ordinances.
Petter has a Minnesota Game Farm license, a USDA permit for animal welfare, and a Minnesota fur farmers’ license, but Julie Larson, a farmer and rancher in Eureka Township, says her research indicates that local ordinances take precedence over state and federal regulations. Larson contends Petter is housing exotic animals illegally since she has many more animals than when her animals were grandfathered in back in 2007. Larson has become frustrated as she says the township has not pursued complaints she has filed against Petter.
“Nobody’s really looked into it,” she said, “That’s the problem.”
Meanwhile, Petter says her animals fall under fur farm regulations, allowed in the Eureka Township ordinance. But because Petter is being told she cannot allow public on to her farm, she has filed to amend the ordinance.
Larson raises baby calves and worries that large felines or wolves could escape from Petter’s property and harm her livestock. She also worries about the safety of people in the area.
“It’s a potential disaster,” Larson said.
Petter’s neighbor, Jeanie Fredland agrees.
“I don’t feel safe in the yard, and I like to be outside gardening,” she said. Fredland will not allow her 12-year-old grandson to play outside with those types of animals next door and said her main concern is the safety of everyone, including the animals.
“People moved out here to be in an agricultural area,” she said, “but not to have our property devalued and to be basically terrorized by wild animals next door. I just see such a lack of regard for her neighbors.”
Petter counters that she has never had any animals escape and has talked with the Dakota County Sheriff’s Department to put plans in place should something like that ever happen.
“We’re fortified to the hilt,” Petter said. “We’re like Fort Knox. We’re all about safety. You can’t afford not to be because if there is an incident, you are shut down.”
But Fredland worries that a tragedy like what happened in Zanesville, Ohio, in 2011, where almost 50 wild animals were released from an exotic farm, could happen right next door. USDA inspection reports indicate two times in 2012 when an official arrived at the farm and could not perform an inspection because a responsible adult was not available to accompany the official during the inspection.
But Petter says her animals are well-cared for and she does not feel there should be any safety concerns.
“We’re all about the animals,” she added. “I don’t have kids. These animals are my kids. Do I trust my wolves more than I trust most dogs? Most definitely.”
According to Petter, her facility is licensed the same way as the Minnesota Zoo, and she follows the same rules and regulations as that facility. Even if the zoning ordinance change is not passed, she says her animals will stay where they are.
“The ordinance change is not to let animals be there,” she said. “They are there and they are not going anywhere, but it’s about letting people on my property to visit them.”
She also says the Dakota County Sheriff’s Department has investigated her operation and deemed it is legal for her to have those animals on her property.
But Larson isn’t the only Eureka Township resident with concerns about Petter’s operation and her proposed ordinance changes.
Bill Funk recently bought a foreclosed home near Petter, which he has been fixing up. He shares about 600 feet of property line with her. He fears the proposed ordinance change leaves the definition of agri-tourism wide open to interpretation. He said there have been odor and noise complaints from Petter’s neighbors and he worries that adding another ordinance on top of policies that aren’t currently being enforced could bring even more problems.
Many neighbors are planning to attend the public hearing to voice their concerns.
“We’re not going to stop here,” Fredland said. “If this situation isn’t taken care of, we’ll follow with whatever legal measures are necessary to see that this situation is taken care.”
The public hearing will be Thursday, March 7, in the Eureka Town Hall, 25043 Cedar Ave., beginning at 7 p.m. The complete text amendments can be found at http://eurekatownship-mn.us/.