County makes no special exception

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By Carolyn Risner

After more than four hours of testimony from sides supporting and opposing an exotic animal sanctuary in Morriston, the Levy County Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously denied the special exception application.

Between 60 and 70 people filled the courtroom Monday night to listen to Dr. Suzanne Billiar, an exotic animal owner and veterinarian, ask for a special exception to home more than 45 animals on a 3.5 acre tract of land that is zoned AR–agricultural/residential.

Before testimony began, County Attorney Anne Bast Brown told those in attendance that the commission was limited to the action it could take.

The members’ primary responsibility is to ensure the application for a special exception met the rules and criteria set forth by the county code. Brown said the applicant always has the burden of proof showing that those standards have been met. All decisions made must be based on fact, not opinion, Brown  stressed.

Rob Corbitt, code enforcement director for the county, summarized the staff report and findings in the first segment of testimony.

Corbitt said while Billiar has the necessary permits from Florida Fish and Wildlife (FWC) to keep Class I Exotic Animals, the opinion of staff is the property is not in compliance with adjacent development, and foliage around the property does not provide adequate noise reduction.

Staff offered two recommendations to the planning commission:

• Recommend denial based on it is a residential area and that this a prohibited use, and it is not compatible with the surrounding area.

• Recommend approval but with conditions--

a) No commercial use

b) no expansion, no more animals

c) any animal escape would be an automatic revocation of the exemption

d) no more than one additional person to care for the animals

e) the exemption would not be transferable with the property

f) a contract for waste disposal would be in place

Moises Kaba III, an attorney from Hialeah, represented Billiar’s interests during the meeting and argued her legal position on the application.

He said the application was correct, due to the current zoning of the property, which in his opinion meant farming.

He said that Corbitt’s analysis that it was 85 percent residential was misleading, because people only live on small portions of their tracts, leaving the remainder vacant, filled with animals or agricultural endeavors.

He said that Billiar and her husband, Brian R. Davis, had gone to great lengths to secure the area with fencing, shade cloths and foliage.

The work Billiar does on her property consists of nursing endangered animals and conducting research that will benefit the community and the country.

“What she is doing,” Kaba said, “falls squarely within the intended purpose of your (comprehensive)?plan.”

Billiar has been on the property since 2005, he said, and there have been no problems to date.

Billiar currently has four Class I animals: chimpanzees, a bear and a tiger. A lion was recently euthanized.

All the animals are double-caged he said with those cages having guillotine doors to allow feeding without being inside with the animals.

The cages are pressure cleaned from the outside, he added and are in close proximity to Billiar’s living quarters.

Billiar also showed a 30-minute video of the property to showcase the animals and how they are cared for.

At the conclusion of public comment (see sidebar), commissioners asked a few questions before Tommy Harper made a motion to deny the application which was quickly seconded by Toni Collins and passed unanimously.

The Planning Commission’s recommendation to deny will now be heard before the county commission on March 2 at 6:30 p.m. in Courtroom A.