An equine veterinarian has surmounted neighbors’ objections to her keeping retired horses at her Somers home.
Last month, the Zoning Board of Appeals granted special exception use permits and area variances to Dr. Kaela Choquette, founder of Willow Lane Equine in Brewster, and David Potter, her grandfather.
One allows them to house up to six horses on their Annarock Drive property; the other, to construct an accessory apartment above the barn for a caretaker or family member only.
They were also granted an area variance because town code prohibits the housing of domestic farm animals in structures where humans also live.
Because the barn is being built after April 1, 1992, certain conditions can be imposed. Choquette and Potter will have to apply to the town Building Department separately for a permit to construct it.
The approvals apply to 6 and 8 Annarock Drive, located in an R-80 Residential District. Together, the two parcels contain about 11 acres.
At a Dec. 18 public hearing before the ZBA, worried residents trotted out a long list of reasons why the permits should be denied.
Among opponents’ fears were that a horse farm could irreversibly change the neighborhood’s character and harm property values.
Under the town code, folks in an R-80 residential district can have horses, but the exact number is determined by the amount of usable acreage available.
Foes accused applicants of trying to “shoehorn” the operation onto too small a site.
They claimed the property was too sloped and didn’t contain enough flat area to meet the minimum code requirements.
Also on the list were: noise from trucks ferrying horses, hay, feed and water back and forth, possible odors from manure, rats and other vermin, possible contamination of storm water runoff and groundwater, and even the potential for the transmission of West Nile virus.
Annarock Drive resident Dominic Veltri submitted a petition with the names of 39 people who opposed the farm.
Choquette and Potter’s attorney, Don Rossi of Brewster, saying that “the plan meets the code in all respects,” added that his clients would agree to any special conditions that would head off any adverse impacts.
Health and well-being issues are, Rossi said, “critical” to Choquette, who will be living there with her mother, also a skilled horsewoman, and grandfather once the house is renovated and the accessory apartment built.
The “farm” will not be operated as a business, Rossi said. One of the conditions is that they can’t lease out the horses for riding or lessons or allow other people to rent stalls or paddocks.
The horses won’t be ridden around the property, only let out for short times into their paddock for fresh air and exercise. They will be fed in their stalls and don’t need grass for grazing, Rossi added.
Conditions also forbid outdoor lighting or loudspeakers. Manure will be kept in a closed dumpster and removed on a weekly basis. Feed will be kept in rodent-proof containers.
He said Choquette also plans to rotate the paddocks’ use so “they don’t become mud pits.”
As for the apartment, it will be lived in by someone caring for the horses, or by a family member.
“If it wasn’t for the accessory apartment, the plan would be in all four corners of the code,” Rossi said, adding that the project could have been “much more intense” if they had asked to keep, say, the 11 horses allowed.
ZBA Attorney Gerald Reilly noted that if either of the two lots are sold off, any approvals would be automatically “null and void.” As is, the owners have to reapply every seven years; and if the property is sold, the new owners have to apply for the permits/variances within six months.
Michael Caruso, attorney for residents Barlow and Patricia Humphreys and George Azar, argued that the area variance applications can’t be handled by the ZBA. It needs a use variance or amendment to the town code by the Town Board, he said. The board refuted that claim.
Even though some may feel the code is outmoded, it still is in place and should be applied as written, Caruso said.
Azar, who lives on Route 100, felt the farm was too “compressed” for the property. Jim Kearney, of Annarock Drive, worried about the spread of West Nile. And longtime Realtor Donna O’Connell, who lives across the street, called findings by Eric Rosenfeld, the Realtor who handled the property’s sale, “misleading.”
There is no proof, she said, that properties near horse farms increase in value. The places the realtor used for comparison are very large operations in affluent communities like Bedford and don’t apply to her neighborhood, she said.
Rosenfeld defended the information he presented, saying it was not intended as a site-by-site comparison, but was just a way of addressing the question of whether horses decrease property values.
Neighbor Steven Miller told the board that it all “comes down to tangibles and intangibles,” the latter of which “have not been dealt with.”
“No one on the board is more qualified to define the character of a neighborhood than the people who live there,” said Miller.
“This was a quiet, sleepy cul-de-sac and it’s being turned into the street with the horse farm,” he said.
Patricia Humphreys said there isn’t enough usable land for the proposed use and allowing it would “set a dangerous precedent.”
“This is a concept that should not be turned into reality. This is the wrong site,” she told the board.
Calling the objections “conjecture only,” Rossi said Choquette was “the intangible” because she will be living on the property.
He commended Tim Allen of Bibbo Associates, engineering consultants, “for coming up with a project that follows the code so precisely.”
Choquette told the board that although the top of her property is “beautiful and flat” no horses will be ridden there.
As for criticism that her plans have morphed over time, changes were made in direct response to neighbors’ concerns, Choquette said.
She added that she bought the property only after being told by Somers’ building inspector that the zone allowed for horses.
Fears that mosquitoes could pick up West Nile from an infected horse and spread it around are unfounded because “a properly vaccinated animal becomes a dead-end vector” for the disease, the vet said.
She also bridled at implications she was going to create “manure-laden cesspools” on the property: “I don’t know where that’s coming from. It’s my home.”
Choquette said the horses are retired and are her “pets.” The only one that she owns that can still be ridden is boarded in North Salem and will stay there.
Barlow Humphreys insisted that the farm’s proximity would reduce his home’s value and that “is really just theft by another name.”
Rossi later noted that a professional engineer designed the site and will have to provide detailed plans “on every aspect.” Any violations of the code, or the conditions attached to approvals, will “very quickly” be addressed by enforcement officers, he said.
After closing the more than two-hour-long public hearing, Chairman Victor Cannistra said it’s the ZBA’s role to provide “reasonable relief” from zoning codes and anyone unhappy with its decisions can file an Article 78 action with the state Supreme Court.
The board then voted unanimously to take a “Type II” action, or those found not to have significant environmental impacts, or are legally exempt under the State Environmental Quality Review Act.
The votes to approve the special exception use permit, and area variances, for the apartment, and for the six horses was not unanimous however.
Voting “aye” in both cases, were: board members Melissa D’Ippolito, Arnold Guyot, Bill Harden, Umberto Santaroni, and Cannistra.
(ZBA member Ronald Carpaneto was absent.)
The lone “neigh” votes were cast by Tom Newman, although he did go for the “Type II” declarations. His main objections were that the project didn’t appear to be a good fit for the neighborhood and that it required multiple special use permits and variances.
Conditions imposed as part of the approval were that: all horses kept there must be owned or leased by Choquette or Potter; there shall be no leasing of stalls or paddocks; no private or group lessons offered to the public; no outdoor lighting or loudspeakers; the handling of manure must comply with sanitary codes; and feed must be kept in rodent-proof containers.
Things were orderly during the lengthy proceedings, but got a bit rough after the ZBA voted 5-1 to approve the applications.
A video posted on the town’s website captured—off camera—an unidentified woman shouting “Shame!” and “How dare you?!” at board members. A police officer followed her and cohorts as they walked out.
It could not be learned by press deadline if Caruso intends to pursue legal steps on his clients’ behalf, but town officials said they weren’t aware of any Article 78 action being filed as of Monday.