originally published in the Hartford Advocate March 29, 2007
A Zoning Debate Over 22 Shih Tzus In One House Has West Hartford Going To The Dogs
By Jennifer Abel
Does the law exist to serve people, or do people exist to serve the law? The question sounds like fodder for a college bull session among legal majors, but it’s more than academic for West Hartford resident and dog owner Faith Kilburn. “If the law is capricious and arbitrary, and I can show no harm is caused, then what’s it all about?” she asked.
Basically, it’s about a town ordinance limiting residents to ownership of no more than two adult dogs (three if the person has a kennel permit). The rule has the most rational of rationales: even if you think government should be hands-off regarding what people do with their property, you’d probably agree that a person in his own home shouldn’t have to listen to the constant barking (or smell the unpleasant odors) too many of a neighbor’s dogs can generate.
But Kilburn says her Shih Tzu lapdogs — all 22 of them — cause no problems for her neighbors and the neighbors agree, to such extent that two dozen of them signed a petition requesting that the town make an exception and let Kilburn keep her dogs (who are elderly by canine standards and not likely to be around much longer anyway). So far the zoning board has refused, and Kilburn took it to court after it denied her latest request for a special-use permit last December.
“I filed the court documents almost immediately,” she said. “I had to, because of the fines. They said they could fine me up to $5,000 per month.”
Nobody on the zoning board could or would comment, so only Kilburn’s side can be told. But the zoning board’s position is undeniably backed by the law.
It all started on a Monday morning in 2004 when Kilburn got a phone call from town officials. “[They] said, ‘Faith, someone said you have 16 dogs,’ and I said, ‘No, I have 22.’”
Answers like that make town officials ask to inspect a home. Kilburn says she invited them over that day, but not until Wednesday did officials from the boards of zoning and health come by.
“They came into the house and their eyes got wide as saucers, and they said, ‘How do you do it? Everything is so clean and wonderful!’ … they looked for cleanliness, which they found, and my vet wrote a letter saying all the dogs’ shots were up to date. The vet said nobody could take care of the dogs as well as Faith, and it would be cruel to break them up.”
So the dogs weren’t being mistreated, or living in squalor. What was the problem? Town Zoning Enforcement Officer Eva Espinosa could not be reached for comment and assistant officer Joseph Masi, citing pending litigation, referred questions to Joseph O’Brien, the corporation counsel for West Hartford.
“I believe it was a complaint from a neighbor,” O’Brien said, though he didn’t know the name of the complainant. Kilburn suspects it’s the one who discussed her Shih Tzus at a recent town meeting and said, “I just want the law enforced.” (The neighbor could not be reached for comment.)
All right: there’s at least one person who’s annoyed, if not by the dogs themselves then by the fact that their existence in Kilburn’s home flouts the law. But Kilburn’s immediate neighbors, whom the law presumably protects, signed a petition saying they don’t need its protection.
One of the petition signers was Elizabeth Mayo, whose backyard borders Kilburn’s. Has Mayo had problems with the dogs?
“No, we haven’t,” she said. “We directly back up on [Kilburn’s] property, and the dogs are not a problem.” But surely, 22 dogs must get noisy sometimes. “No, not at all. They’re very quiet. I can’t say that I ever hear them barking.” Emmet Whittlesey, whose signature also graces the petition, agrees.
“We’ve lived here 30 years or so, and I don’t ever know that [the dogs] are there.” And what does he think of the town’s attempts to evict them? “It’s absurd.”
It’s easy to argue for a law’s enforcement when breaking it harms someone. But when nobody’s being hurt, the arguments for enforcement get Kafkaesque. Kilburn describes the reasoning she’d heard from the zoning board when she was denied her special-use permit last December:
“They said it was because they’ve already given me enough time to get rid of the dogs … in 2004 they told me I had to get rid of all but three of them.”
So they won’t let her keep the dogs because she didn’t get rid of the dogs?
“Yes,” Kilburn said. “[Robert] Roach [of the zoning board] said to me, “We don’t want to see you back in this chamber again, because you’ll just ask for another special-use permit.” Roach did not return calls seeking comment.
So the only complaint about the breaking of this law is that the law’s being broken. Are laws upheld for the greater good, or only for their own sake? Faith Kilburn will soon find out.