The Loxahatchee Groves Town Council approved a new site plan for Big Dog Ranch Rescue on Tuesday, May 2 that allows the nonprofit animal shelter the ability to expand its existing buildings with the primary goal of accommodating new programs designed to serve veterans and active-duty military personnel.
“Many soldiers are forced to make the heartrending decision to surrender their dogs prior to deployment,” said Lauree Simmons, president and founder of BDRR. “With this expansion, we can assure that they can keep these dogs and be reunited with them when they return.”
Simmons said that the proposed new wing, the Langone Patriot Pet Boarding Lodge, is designed to address this issue, providing housing and care, free of cost for deployed soldiers. The project is being funded by Ken Langone, founder of Home Depot.
The expansion will also allow BDRR to grow the veteran dog training program that helps veterans with PTSD and other issues from 35 to 75 dogs per year.
The council spent more than two and half hours discussing the issue, both regarding the proposed expansion, and updating the list of conditions that were put in place when BDRR’s original site plan was approved in 2015.
BDRR is located on a 32-acre site at the southeast corner of Okeechobee Blvd. and D Road. The applicant has requested a site plan amendment to address the changing needs of the nonprofit after five years of operation. The principal change increases the approved maximum square footage from 65,805 square feet to 75,263 square feet. The largest change will redesign and increase the size of boarding dog housing from 6,581 square feet to 15,301 square feet, an increase of 8,720 square feet.
Simmons said that the two additional wings will be both for the veterans’ program and the boarding of dogs for deployed soldiers. “Even with the additional square footage we are requesting, we would still be way under what is allowed in the town code,” she said.
Other changes to the plan are minor, providing a bit more space for education and the puppy area.
Simmons said that her nonprofit takes in stray dogs from the community, and also an average of 35 owner surrenders each week from around Palm Beach County.
She noted that BDRR has been expanding nationally, recently opening a 100-acre facility in Alabama, as well as several other locations throughout the southeast, which is the area of the country with the largest problem with pet overpopulation.
A program with 10 spay/neuter buses is also launching soon to help combat pet overpopulation, Simmons said, adding that adoption centers will be opening in the northeast.
Planning Consultant Jim Fleischmann noted that conditions were changed to allow dog boarding for deployed military personnel and first responders, and also to allow temporary increases to the amount of shelter pets during emergency and disaster situations.
During public comment, several veterans attending with their service dogs praised the veteran dog training program.
Also attending on behalf of BDRR was Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw.
“I am here to support Big Dog Ranch,” he said. “When this program became available with the veterans, we saw an opportunity to partner with Big Dog Ranch on our mental health initiatives, and it has worked out fantastically. Anything we can do with mental health issues up front is someone we will not have to deal with on the back end.”
Bradshaw added that he would like to see the program expanded to first responders, who also have issues with PTSD.
Resident Cassie Suchy, however, didn’t like the addition of the changed conditions that were not discussed by the Loxahatchee Groves Planning & Zoning Board. “We have rules, and we have processes that need to be followed,” she said.
Suchy added that a better photometric plan needs to be put in place that dim the lights at 11 p.m.
Resident Nina Corning wanted more specifics about the condition regarding allowing more dogs during an emergency. “Some of the open-ended wording has to be captured,” she said.
During council comments, Councilwoman Phillis Maniglia asked that the disaster exception be made for Florida dogs only, but Simmons disagreed.
“I don’t care if a dog was born in Palm Beach County or North Carolina,” Simmons said. “I don’t think it’s right for you to ask us to let a dog die that we can help.”
She noted that BDRR often gets called on to help with puppy mill closures all across the nation.
Regarding the nighttime security lights, Simmons said that they are necessary since vet techs work all night taking care of sick and pregnant dogs and need the light to be able to safely traverse the facility. She said that they aren’t bothering anyone since the site is surrounded by nurseries, not residential.
Vice Mayor Robert Shorr thanked BDRR for all it does for veterans.
“When this first came before us, I think people thought there was going to be a bigger noise impact than there is,” he said. “I live pretty close to the facility, and I have never heard a dog bark personally.”
However, he did agree that the all-night security lighting violates the town’s development code. He said that a condition needs to be added that allows the necessary security lighting but does not overburden the area with light.
Shorr also asked for an updated floodplain survey, more trees in the preserve area and monthly reports from BDRR regarding the number of dogs at the facility.
Councilwoman Marge Herzog suggested using lighting that doesn’t affect the night sky.
Councilwoman Marianne Miles felt that some of the requests were getting far afield from the issue at hand. “I think a lot of the issues brought up are easily rectified,” she said.
In the end, the council worked with staff and BDRR representatives to draft wording for several updated conditions that were agreeable to all parties.
Among the agreed-upon changes were that BDRR could increase its dog count by 100 dogs specifically to accommodate the veteran and military boarding programs, the increase for disasters and emergencies were limited to 45 days, BDRR would provide regular reports to the town and work with the town on the scheduling of special events, and BDRR would add more preserve area to the plan.
Mayor Laura Danowski said that she supported the plan but was not happy that the new conditions of approval were not reviewed by the Planning & Zoning Board. She wanted a delay so that the board could review the changes.
“What was presented to Planning & Zoning does not reflect what was in our agenda,” she said. “Our job is to be thorough and accurate.”
Simmons, however, said that a further delay could incur big costs to BDRR.
Miles said all the extra conditions are not what the current request is about.
“This is about the building she wants to do to have a special needs place for the veterans, the training of the dogs and the housing of dogs for the deployed,” Miles said. “We are here to discuss what’s in front of us, not what can be down the road.”
Shorr made a motion to approve the new site plan with the changes discussed, which passed 4-1 with Danowski opposed.