© The Stoneham Independent

STONEHAM, MA - STONEHAM- At the urging of Planning and Community Development Director Erin Wortman, Stoneham's planners last week agreed to sponsor a zoning initiative aimed at regulating pet day care facilities.

During a meeting last Thursday night in Town Hall, the Planning Board unanimously agreed to support a three-word zoning amendment which will expand the definition of a dog kennel to include businesses that offer daily pet-sitting services to area residents.

Voters will ultimately decide whether to adopt the zoning change during the Special Town Meeting scheduled for Oct. 15.

The decision to sponsor the proposed legislation marks a reversal of the Planner Board's earlier position on the zoning change in late August, when the elected officials refused to endorse the initiative.

The change of heart was prompted by the appearance of Wortman, who explained Stoneham's bylaws are completely silent about such ventures, which are becoming increasingly popular. According to the planning director, the lack of zoning guidance has become an issue for Building Inspector Cheryl Noble, who is asking that the lack of clarity around the use be cleared up.

Noble, as Stoneham's chief zoning enforcement officer, has decided to treat any permitting requests for a pet day care facility as an application for a dog kennel, a business which is only allowed by special permit in the highway business district.

Stoneham's code also appears to allow kennels within Residence A districts, but only in circumstances where the business is to be housed within an accessory structure.

Though considering a dog kennel as the closest defined use to a pet care facility, Noble is reportedly uncomfortable using that zoning language, as kennels normally involve the overnight boarding of animals. By contrast, a pet care facility, also sometimes referred to as doggy day care, generally involves customers dropping off their pets with a caretaker while they head off to work for the day.

"The zoning enforcement officer for the town feels it's unclear, and she's asking for more clarity," Wortman explained last week.

The final language being proposed by the Planning Board differs from the revised approach suggested last Thursday night by Wortman, who had asked the elected board to consider sponsoring an entirely new zoning code section that deals exclusively with pet care businesses.

Referencing the planner's last conversation in August about the zoning change, Wortman explained she had modified her original pitch to make the business use allowable in Stoneham's commercial districts only by special permit.

However, the planners, echoing remarks made when they rejected the zoning amendment late last month, cited a host of concerns about the newest iteration, including:

• That the inclusion of all business districts was too expansive;

• and that references to "domesticated animals" was similarly too broad and could include exotic pets like "donkeys" and "giraffes".

According to the town planner, she believed there was no reason to exclude certain business districts, because the board has the authority under Stoneham's special permit provisions to impose all sorts of restricts on a petition. The board similarly retains the right to outright reject the opening of a pet care facility in any area considered inappropriate.

She also explained she made reference to "domesticated animals", because state law specifically makes reference to that term and lists the kinds of animals that can be owned by citizens — who must also seek a local license to keep those pets.

"If some rich woman in Stoneham wants to pay $50 a day for someone to watch her goldfish, I say let her," reasoned the town planner. "If I apply for a special permit and I want to take care of dogs, cats, and snakes, but you don't like the idea of snakes, you can [condition the special permit to exclude reptiles]."

However, according to Dolan, by restricting the types of animals allowed on a case-by-case basis, the zoning change would create an enforcement nightmare for the building inspector, who would be responsible for handling complaints regarding business that are caring for prohibited classes of pets.

Planning Board members Daniel Moynihan and Joseph Rolli also worried that allowing the facilities in all of Stoneham's commercial areas would create situations where conflicts arise between business owners in multi-tenant buildings.

"My biggest concern is for the downtown business district. Say someone wants to put a pet day care next to a dentist's office. It seems to be too broad, because someone could come in with a pet giraffe and want to put it in [a Stoneham Square storefront]," said Moynihan. "I don't want to open up a can of worms and allow doggy day cares in all four business zones."

Dolan, agreeing Noble had a legitimate concern about labeling a pet care business as a kennel — as it technically involves boarding animals overnight — ultimately pitched the agreed-upon compromise, whereby the planners would support the expansion of kennel uses to include the "daytime care" of dogs and cats.

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