County planners talk emotional support animal ordinance

A draft emotional support animal ordinance was presented to the Warren County Planning Commission on Tuesday as a step toward addressing a zoning violation stemming from Tidioute Borough residents cited for the possession of four small goats on their property.

A lenient and stringent approach was outlined to the Commission.

And it’s unclear which direction any potential ordinance — which would ultimately need to be approved by the county commissioners – might take.

Planning Director Michael Lyon stressed at the outset of the discussion that his draft would have no effect on animals typically kept in a home — dogs and cats — but would allow the county to be compliant with the regulations of the federal Fair Housing Act.

He said the county is already receiving complaints and questions about how this might work going forward.

“That’s one of our challenges,” he said. “We can’t actually answer those questions.”

Warren County Solicitor Nathaniel Schmidt provided the legal side of the issue to the commission.

“An emotional support animal is usually established by letter from a health professional,” Schmidt explained, telling the board that the issue most recently presents in the law where the Americans with Disabilities Act addresses reasonable accommodations.

“What’s happened here… is that you have a Fair Housing Act which is very broad,” he said. It “says any party or any entity that interferes with the equal opportunity or use of housing could be in violation of the Fair Housing Act.”

He cited a federal Third Circuit case out of New Jersey that clarified the test used to make a reasonable accommodation determination.

“In these kinds of situations under the Third Circuit rule is that the applicant has to prove what they’re requesting is an accommodation” needed to provide equal opportunity to use a given property as anyone else would.

“If that burden is met,” he said, “the burden is on the defendant to prove the request is unreasonable.”

With that legal background in hand, Schmidt presented a couple of options for how the county could proceed in this case.

One option would be to require a hearing to review applications for emotional support animals that would need reviewed on a periodic basis for medical necessity.

“This approach is not the most lenient approach,” he said.

The other option is a simple registration process contingent on a letter from a healthcare provider

Lyon pointed out that the county would not be able to charge for processing an emotional support animal application.

He also explained that the letter from a provider does not have to be from a mental health provider and outlined how websites exist to secure these letters for a small fee.

The Planning Commission raised concerns about a potential slippery slope.

“If a medical professional says you need goats and the more goats the better, this explodes to two dozen goats running around in Tidioute Borough,” Commission chair Paul Pascuzzi said. “Where does it stop? It’s a hard swallow to think that the people who live next door in your township are going to be allowed to have emotional support hogs in their backyard. “I don’t think we have to move through this any time quick.”

Lyon pointed out that, under the county’s zoning ordinance, a residence becomes a kennel when it includes four adult dogs.

“If you have… five rottweilers, hypothetically, the kennel ordinance doesn’t matter,” Lyon said.

He added that the county could choose to do nothing but pointed out that doesn’t bring the county into compliance with the Fair Housing Act.

“(It) opens the floodgates if you do this,” Commission member Jeff Zariczny said. “I can see that a mile away.”

“We’re faced with something so I think we have to proceed with something,” Pascuzzi suggested. “Certain neighborhoods, it won’t be a big problem. When you’re in a borough … the proximity to your neighbors has an impact.”

The initial request from residents was for a change in setback requirements to permit the goats to remain.

“We have setback laws for a reason,” Pascuzzi said. “If they’re challenging the setback then it’s clear what our decision is. We’re not changing that.”

Schmidt said that he would be going back to the county commissioners after Tuesday’s meeting.

“They can direct whether (I) draft an ordinance or not,” he said.

“This is something that seems simple,” Lyon said, “but has a lot of tentacles to it.”


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