Panther Ridge Facility At Odds With Lox Code Enforcement

Panther Ridge Conservation Center, formerly based in Wellington, has found a new home in Loxahatchee Groves, but it has run afoul of the town’s code inspector.

Executive Director Judy Berens was at a Loxahatchee Groves Town Council workshop on Tuesday, Jan. 15 to complain that Panther Ridge, a nonprofit organization that shelters large felines, is controlled by the rules of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, which has sole discretion over agencies that protect captive wildlife. Therefore, the five-acre property at 2143 D Road is exempt from rules of local governments, Berens explained.

“I have moved my nonprofit to Loxahatchee Groves, and it is a conservation center for endangered exotic cats,” Berens said, referring to the town’s wildlife ordinance, stating that the exhibition of wildlife pets is permitted as regulated by state law, and that the town had stricken local codes regulating wildlife in deference to state law.

Elizabeth Felton, a member of the board at Panther Ridge who attended the meeting with Berens, said code enforcement officer Barry Trombley visited the property and cited violations there regarding the fence height.

“Ms. Berens called me the first time that Barry showed up at her property,” Felton said. “She was very upset, and I said, ‘Please put him on the phone.’ I’ve dealt with this in other counties. I spoke with Barry and let him know that there’s a memorandum that came from Florida Fish & Wildlife that states only Florida Fish & Wildlife has discretion to make any rules or regulations, and I’m pretty sure your town has come to understand that because it’s all stricken. He said, ‘Well I don’t make the rules. I just follow them.’ I said, ‘Well, you can’t enforce an unconstitutional rule.’”

Felton said she asked Trombley to call Florida Fish & Wildlife and ask for its legal department, and they would provide him with a copy of the memorandum. She spoke with the head of law enforcement for Fish & Wildlife, who told her that no one from the town had contacted him asking for a copy of the memorandum, but she had a copy, and would provide e-mail contacts to the town if it wanted to get a copy directly from Fish & Wildlife.

“We also have an issue with Barry showing up on the property without a warrant,” Felton said. “He is not qualified to go out with our animals. He does not have the training or the legal standing to be walking onto a property where there are jaguars. He is presenting a danger to himself, and a liability to us. If, for some reason, somebody does make a complaint, we will happily walk anybody through who needs to be walked through, if there is a legitimate violation.”

Felton said that Berens had applied for a fence permit pertaining to a bill that was signed into law last year.

“The state does not want agricultural properties to be doubly enforced,” Felton said. “If you’re doing agricultural business or agritourism, they don’t want you to jump through state, federal and then local ordinances. It just becomes too much.”

Mayor Dave Browning urged Berens and Felton to get their issue on the agenda for the council’s next regular meeting, so it could take action, but Felton said she wanted to talk with council members because the matter was going to go before the town’s special magistrate.

“These are fictitious violations of ordinances that we’re being written up for,” Felton said. “They don’t even exist on your books.”

Town Manager Bill Underwood said Town Attorney Michael Cirullo has been in touch with Florida Fish & Wildlife.

“We’re waiting for legal at Fish & Wildlife,” Underwood said. “It appears that they were supposed to check with the town that it was OK, or you were supposed to check with the town.”

Felton disagreed. “None of that is true, and I can show you right here in the memorandum,” she said.

Underwood said Cirullo is waiting for a response from Florida Fish & Wildlife to see that it follows its rules to the letter. “We’re aware of your situation,” Underwood said.

Councilwoman Anita Kane asked how Panther Ridge got on the code enforcement radar, and Underwood said someone had contacted the town when a truck delivering raw meat to the facility was blocking the road.

Felton invited council members and residents to come out and visit the center.

“People tend to be afraid of what they don’t know,” she said. “Come out and know us.”