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Town Horse Permit Needed? Never Give Up!

As an equine attorney, I've had many occasions over the years to do battle with town officials over equine matters. For numerous reason lately, the field of battle has seemed especially crowded with contestants, likely due to poor economic conditions squeezing the towns, along with a great pace of development of open green space here in the Northeast where I practice.

When subject client first appeared at my office in the fall of 2007, I didn't have the heart to tell him the odds were not good that he'd be able to get a stable permit for his four ponies currently kept in his back yard. My client, a young man with a beautiful and determined wife and six children from diapers to teenage years, simply didn't have the financial resources needed to engage in a lengthy legal battle with town officials, and that's what had shaped up by the time my client appeared in my waiting room, wife and three of the six children in tow.

He'd been served with a summons from Housing Court and been charged criminally with keeping horses without a stable permit, as well as with keeping a nuisance. The neighbor next door, another young man, but given to persistent whining and without the life-focusing properties of a wife and several children, had complained repeatedly to Town Hall and the Health Department about flies and the odor of manure. The resulting summons and formal complaints had been dragging on for some time in court before my client found his way to my office. My first court appearance on this client's behalf didn't encourage any feelings of hopefulness either, as Noisy Neighbor appeared and exercised all of his considerable noisy powers. But then, as the months dragged on, chinks started appearing in the wall of beauracratic interference, somewhat caused by my client's hard work and a certain amount of good luck.

The first piece of good luck came from the apparent insanity of Noisy Neighbor. Incensed with the slowness of court action, Neighbor had installed a series of floodlights focused on my client's property as well as twenty four hour a day surveillance video cameras. These actions, so clearly beyond the pale of reasonableness, caused Town officials to start to question their previously unquestioned support of this man. Further, my client had made every effort to work with town officials. And when I first went to town hall and looked for an application from the Board of Health for a stable permit on his behalf, I was told that the town did not have an application available, nor any fee structure to make such an application, and moreover, I was told by the secretary of the Board of Health that the Board did not issue such permits.

After an incredulous call to Town Counsel, wherein I was assured that, indeed, the Board of Health WAS the appropriate town board with which to work, I created on behalf of my client, an application, and then a proposal for the keeping of the four animals. I did this with certain misgivings, having been told by a colleague that the way to proceed in such circumstances was to force the town to come up with an application. I knew that my client didn't have the resources for such litigation, however. Further, my client canvassed the neighborhood and came up with petitions of support from all the other abutting neighbors. Finally, my client, who was a hardworking individual living in a run-down section of town, stood revealed over time as someone who was creating value through the continual improvement of his property in terms of cleaning up the land, clearing trash, upgrading fencing, and in general property maintenance. This last attribute must have looked like a gift from Heaven to the town officials as they drove by the property over the weeks and months. Further, my client was meticulous in documenting his efforts to address town concerns, something few clients do.

The issue boiled down to the required visit of the site by board officials. This visit, which had been postponed over the winter due to icy conditions, was finally set for a day in May that turned out to be the first sunny warm day of spring.

Lady Luck lent another hand that day, when it turned out that Noisy Neighbor, having apparently spent too much on surveillance items, moved out and left the property behind abandoned and unkempt, with beer cans and bottles strewn about. Also revealed was the presence of the Town Dump behind a strip of woods across the street, and relatively much closer to the neighbor. As my client pointed out, flies and odor stood a much better chance of having come from the dump than from my client's property.

The Board Officials walked into the back yard of my client's home and were greeted with a vision of cuteness: my client's youngest child was perched on top of a grazing, very small Shetland pony, the two of them surrounded by sisters and brothers. The whole thing was so clearly not staged for the event, and yet so obviously the kind of use that would go on if the permit was issued, that a heart of stone would have been needed to resist the image.

The officials went about the business of inspecting the rest of the property, shown the good board fencing, the clean stalls, the proper manure disposal area, and the general air of health and well being evidenced by the horses, the children, and the land. The officials were presented with the petitions of the neighbors, and then shown the wasteland next door owned by currently MISSING Noisy Neighbor (and now, significantly less noisy). The good news came before the Chief of the Board of Health even left the property: my client would get his permit.

As for a morale to this story, I can say that it pays to cooperate with your town officials and document, document, document. Then, don't give up when you know you're doing things right and are being unfairly maligned. My client kept a clean and orderly farm and was a model citizen in cooperating with town personnel and maintaining his property. In the end, those facts all became obvious, supported his case, and he was able to prevail.

Kathleen A. Reagan, Esq. is an equine attorney practicing in Braintree, MA, available at www.kathleenreaganlaw.com, has developed a course in equine law at www.concordlawschool.com, and is co-founder and Vice President of QueryHorse, the largest horse information resource on the Internet.

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