By JAMIE HANSEN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday signaled support for the controversial expansion of a dog kennel north of Oakmont, albeit as a downsized version.
At Supervisor Susan Gorin’s suggestion, the board directed staff to limit the kennel’s capacity to 20 dogs, up from 10, rather than the originally proposed 35.
“We want people to be safe here and have opportunities to board their dogs,” Gorin said of the project, which has divided the retirement community of Oakmont between those supporting the kennel as a valuable community asset and those who say it will worsen traffic and create unwanted noise.
Meadows Kennel is situated on a 3-acre parcel on the east side of Highway 12, down a private, residential lane called Richards Road. A two-phase plan to increase the kennel’s capacity to 35 dogs and allow overnight boarding was approved by the county Board of Zoning Adjustments last year, prompting neighbors who oppose the expansion over traffic and noise concerns to appeal to the Board of Supervisors.
Under the plan approved by the zoning board, owner Heidi Niemann would have been allowed to begin overnight boarding and expand her kennel to hold 20 dogs in year one. At the end of that year, the project would come up for another review. If she passed review, Niemann then could have expanded to 35 dogs.
But Niemann said after Tuesday’s meeting that she was fine with the compromise reached by the supervisors, particularly because she does not think she’d be ready to expand beyond 20 dogs within a year. Under the supervisors’ proposed changes, she also will be allowed to offer grooming and training this year, rather than waiting until the second phase.
The project’s opponents also seemed satisfied. Tammi Bernd and her husband, who live directly across from the kennel, were one of three couples who hired a lawyer to help them protest the scope of the project.
“I’m satisfied,” she said. “We’d be happier with just 10 dogs, but we’re willing to do 20.”
The board’s recommendations came after hearing about two hours of often-emotional comment from residents who packed the chambers.
“One thing that is really clear is that we love our dogs,” Gorin said. “Another thing that is really clear is that this issue is divisive.”
The board will vote on the amended project in March.
Indeed, many have been split over the issue since shortly after the kennel opened in 2011. When Niemann first opened the kennel, neighbors did not oppose it. At the time, she was only providing daytime care for dogs. But residents speaking Tuesday said they felt duped by Niemann when they found out that she was planning to expand the kennel.
Niemann replied that she had been open about her plans and that they even had been published in the Kenwood Press.
But the biggest concern that critics voiced Tuesday was that a larger kennel would exacerbate what they say is an already-dangerous situation on Highway 12 as people turn on and off the road to drop off their pets. Numerous residents spoke emotionally about accidents they had been in or witnessed in the area.
County staff and supervisors acknowledged that Highway 12 in that area was “treacherous.” Several supervisors suggested that Caltrans and the CHP conduct studies in the area to see what can be done to calm traffic.
“I’m totally sensitive to the traffic issues,” Board Chairman David Rabbitt said.
Many neighbors of the kennel also raised concerns about dogs barking, something that they say is already disturbing the neighborhood.
But Niemann and her supporters contended that much of the barking neighbors complained about came not from her kennel but from neighborhood dogs.
To prevent extra noise, Niemann has agreed to limit the hours when dogs can be outside and to provide close monitoring by staff. She also agreed to soundproof the area where the dogs will stay overnight.
Niemann seemed taken aback by the amount of criticism leveled at her by commenters on Tuesday. When it was her turn to comment, she said, “If you have something to say, I’m not that far away. I’ve always been right there.”
Supervisors expressed hope that Niemann and the neighbors could begin to mend their relationship before the project returns for review in a year.
“You heard from neighbors loud and clearly,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said to Niemann. “It’s going to be so, so important for you to be a really great neighbor in every way.”
You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter at @JamieHansen.