St. Croix Animal Friends founder and president Diana Neubarth left the St. Croix County board room in tears Thursday, May 23, but they were not tears of sorrow.
She and more than a dozen supporters applauded when the St. Croix County Board of Adjustment unanimously approved a pivotal variance that will allow SCAF to build an animal shelter-boarding facility in the town of Warren.
"Thirteen years of my life," Neubarth said while wiping away tears in the hall. "It's finally over."
While the Board of Adjustment approved a conditional-use permit April 26 allowing for SCAF's use of the property, a 6.5-acre parcel at 638 State Highway 65, the proposed building could not be constructed without the variance approval, which waives setback requirements that the building be at least 300 feet from all property lines.
The board required the group to demonstrate a hardship in order to dictate the variance; the board was reluctant to set such a precedent otherwise.
SCAF provided the board with a revised site plan, which included the following setback revisions: the north property line from 99 feet to 120 feet; the west property line from 218.1 feet to 210.3 feet; and the east property line with no change (100 feet). The south property line meets the 300-foot requirement.
"This site is perhaps ideal and one of the best in the county" for locating barking dogs due to the traffic noise and natural sound barriers, said Board Chairman Buck Malick. He said the 300-foot setback requirements are meant to insulate residents from noise, but due to the topography and location of the site so close to Interstate-94 and State Highway 65, it would be a hardship to follow these.
Board member Dave Niccum pointed out the proposed facility's location is close to an already established towing and trucking facility, plus the traffic noise of the interstate and highway.
The site boasts a change in elevation from the western side of 30 feet, and a 15-foot elevation difference along the south property line. Essentially, the facility would be in a sort of bowl with a hillside to the west and south, the highway to the east and the interstate to the north.
Sound mitigation efforts outlined in Community Development Land Use Specialist Sarah Borrell's presentation detailed using the site's topography, sound mitigating insulation in the walls of the kennel area and doors with self-closing hinges, as well as screening the parking areas, outside pens, runs and kennel structures with supplemental plantings.
Other revisions to the site plan included the reconfiguration of the infiltration basin which could allow for future connectivity (recommended by the Department of Transportation), if the farmland to the south is ever developed, the addition to the footprint of a potential dog ward and community education room, and paving all parking and loading areas.
The staff recommendation suggested that if the community education room and dog ward are ever built (which would not happen now), the group should come back for an amendment to the CUP. At that time more information would be needed about traffic and additional uses.
The board compared the proposed building plan, an 8,950-square-foot structure, to five other area shelters and came to the conclusion that it would reasonably serve the needs of the community. SCAF hopes to also provide the following, not available at all area shelters:
• A place for battered women and mentally challenged persons to leave their pets
• A place to clean and groom unwanted animals for adoption
• Comprehensive medical care
After some back-and-forth debate on hours of operation, the board settled on 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. open to the public, and exceptions to the hours on a limited basis for law enforcement and animal control drop-offs and pick-ups.
Dave Walker, chair of the SCAF building committee, said the group refuses to go into "a huge amount of debt to do this" when asked about a construction timeline.
"The amount of time depends on the fundraising," Walker said. "We are not looking at going out there tomorrow and throwing the building up."
The board set a two-year limit for the building construction to commence, with completion required in five years.
"Normally we want construction to move along, but that's not the case here," Malick said. "Delay in construction is not problematic."
Before the board's vote, Niccum described the group as "kind of pushing the envelope here a little bit" in regards to the variance request.
Malick chimed in, stated that significantly deviating from three of four setbacks must be a very rare circumstance.
"We are potentially undermining the whole spirit of the ordinance as it was created," Malick said. "But we have a very unique location in a noisy area. I don't see it happening frequently."
The variance approval represents the culmination of a long journey to construct an animal shelter in St. Croix County. SCAF received a conditional-use exception for an animal shelter in 2010, which was followed by a 2012 exception allowing an extension for the project, which included a boarding kennel facility, an increase in the number of dogs allowed at the facility and other structures on the property.
The board's approval expired in 2015 when construction of the facility never commenced. Walker stated the group pays for everything it does without accruing large amounts of debt.
Neubarth said SCAF's next steps will be meeting with the builder and starting to lay out plans for the building's interior, assessing facility needs and gathering bids.
She reminded the public about the group's Raise the Woof Animal Walk fundraising event, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. June 29 at Hudson Prairie Elementary School.
"Let's get that shovel in the ground," Neubarth said with a smile.