Who Let the Dogs In?

A Pennsylvania couple with 21 Siberian husky dogs at their home recently lost a battle with their local zoning officer, who objected to the size of their dog pack.

The couple’s home was on a three acre lot, zoned for residential use and bordering on a large agricultural zone. The couple modified a garage workshop to house the dogs. The converted workshop was heated and air conditioned and contained 17 individual dog crates. An additional four dogs lived with the couple inside the home. The couple did not raise any dogs for sale or provide any kennel services; they simply maintained all the dogs as their pets and occasionally entered their dogs in dog shows and used them as sled dogs.

The township zoning officer claimed that the couple was effectively running a kennel and was not abiding with particular regulations that the township required for kennel operators. Over the course of six hearings, the zoning hearing board and the couple disputed whether the kennel regulations should apply to private homes, and whether keeping 21 dogs on a residential lot violates the ‚Äúcustomary incidental uses‚ÄĚ to which residential lots may be put.

Most zoning laws recognize that certain activities should not take place in residential zones and often limit residents from maintaining livestock, poultry, or other animals. The township’s zoning law permitted customary incidental uses in the township’s residential zones but did not enumerate precisely what those uses were. After the township found the couple in violation of the zoning law, the couple appealed to the courts.

The Pennsylvania court held that keeping pets is certainly a customary incidental use to living in a residential area. But the appeals judge identified the couple‚Äôs housing of 21 dogs on a three acre parcel as beyond the ‚Äúpermissible intensity‚ÄĚ of pet ownership. The judge found that the couple did not produce any evidence or testimony that other township residents customarily kept a comparable number of dogs at their homes. He also found that the size and number of dogs owned by the couple far exceeded the ‚Äúreasonable person‚ÄĚ standard. He concluded that, while many township residents likely were enjoying pets, ‚Äúthe keeping of an unlimited number of any sized animals‚ÄĚ was not customary in the township.

Anyone who plans to own a large number of pets or plans to own any animals that would be considered livestock should consider negotiating with their township officials before making any home improvements for that purpose. Townships may limit animals in residential districts, and it is often unclear where the limits end.

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