By Tim Enloe; Accessmilton.com
It was a crazy night at this past Monday's council meeting...or shall we say it was a zoo? With a tornado warning sending all occupants to the center most part of the building halfway through the night, it was an obvious sign of things to come.
While a contested senior living facility across from Cambridge High had been a topic, it quickly lost favor due to the developer withdrawing his application. This paved the way to focus on Dean Riopelle and his 20.74 acres.
He applied for a use Permit for Exotic Animals to operate a Primate and Exotic Animal Preserve on his property. This parcel in the middle of Milton is home to an estimated 100 animals including donkeys, wallabies, and porcupines. His passion, however, is a small type of monkey no bigger than a house cat called a "Capuchin" which he breeds and raises. Dogs are also a part of the mix; some well over 100 pounds.
His goal was to open the property up for scheduled tours. He requested the approval for building a public bathroom for his visitors, specific parking, as well as being allowed to keep additional exotics on his property among other things.
As council deliberated, debates were all over the place from the width of the respective property's drive way, to the hours of operation, to the size and type of animals allowed, to approving any type of application at all. Member Karen Thurman even joked about making sure that the human primate not be included. The discussion ran long and was not decided on until after 10pm.
Then end result was 4 vs 1 with Joe Longoria outstanding. Council Member Lance Large was absent.
"Having read all the emails that we received from concerned citizens along with the petitions that were signed, I am very pleased with the outcome of this application. We were able to address all of the concerns of dangerous wild animals such as lions, tigers, wolves, bears, snakes, etc. and limit Mr. Riopelle to four types of animals that he has already been raising for years. Plus, we also addressed issues of traffic and concerns of a 'public zoo' such that was being compared to the Atlanta Zoo," shared Mayor Joe Lockwood." By limiting visitors by appointment only, limited hours, no fees collected, etc. Plus from the property owner's side, we have allowed him to continue operating and using his property as he has legally for the last 14 years. Whether someone agrees or not with this property and use, this is what sets Milton apart from so many other communities that have become nothing more than subdivisions and strip centers."
Council Member Matt Kunz concurred, "I know how hard all of us worked to understand all the details of this issue. The efforts by the city officials and personnel helped Milton achieve the status of "The Best Quality of Life in Georgia", even while the monkeys were already here for 14 years. Now we have a legal process by which to control the situation, whereas before more clarity was needed."
Veteran Council Member Karen Thurman echoed the same."I believe it is important that citizens understand the issue is not whether to allow or not allow the applicant to have the animals. The issue is whether to allow him to continue having them as he did prior to the incorporation of the city of Milton, with the city have no conditions or controls on what was allowed prior, or to grant him a use permit thereby allowing the city to have some controls by adding conditions to the use permit. We chose to have some control over the property by granting a use permit with significant conditions."
Mr. Longoria, the one member voting against, reserved comment with exception stating "Since I was on the side of the minority, I will allow the majority to comment. "
With any type of proposed change in today's Milton Georgia, there were those for and those against.
Amy Stipancich of Greystone Farms was not pleased. "I now lack faith in our local government. The majority of Council Members appeared unprepared, uninformed and unwilling to consider their constituents' concerns. I offered a copy of a petition that had been circulating opposing the use permit/zoo as well as important documents obtained by the state agency overseeing wild animals. Nobody asked to see them. Council Members did not even recognize that their own appointees to the Planning Commission DENIED the use permit request, let alone investigate the reasons why that might have been. I was stunned after the vote to hear Mayor Lockwood reference that before the meeting his wife told him this would be the best compromise. Apparently, his mind was made up prior to stepping into the meeting and he heavily persuaded the Council Members to follow along."
Kay Norvell of Sunnybrook Farms agreed. "It is disheartening to know that a voice of 454 (referring to an online petition against) people is not heard above the wants of 1. The council continued to ask the applicant if he was alright with their proposals. Not once did (they) ask the audience of opposition if their proposals were acceptable even though the Mayor kept calling it a 'wonderful compromise for both sides'. I would like to invite the mayor to visit our neighborhood as we are all trying to enjoy our yards on a lovely summer evening only to be consistently interrupted by the yelling and screaming of monkeys. I only hope a child or an adult is not harmed. It has already happened and was not reported. It will not be on our conscience because we tried to warn you. Joe Longoria tried to tell you because he did his homework but the mayor kept cutting him off thinking he was the wiser of the two. Thank you, Joe, for trying to stand up for the community. We will no longer be silent when noise levels are too loud to bear or there is an escape in our neighborhood. We will hold Milton accountable for this decision. I think we are long past due to get real community representation on the council. I for one am anxiously awaiting upcoming elections."
Ed Parsons of Redd Road looked at things in a different perspective. "I respect that some people are fearful of the unknown and that not everyone supports keeping animals in cages. That is a philosophical point of view that leaves little room for compromise. I think the Council and Mayor did the best they could to set the citizens mind at ease.(Those opposed) got the commitment by the landowner to not have large breed primates on site and they also got an agreement to not have a long list of animals such as lions, tigers, and bears, as well as a long list of other exotics. I am hopeful that the majority will see this as a good compromise and it mitigates a perceived risk. For Dean Riopelle, he has been raising primates for 14+ years and has a track record of extraordinary care, safety, wanted to set up the farm to accommodate visitors. I think the majority of the citizens of Milton will embrace what Dean is doing. For me, it took one visit to his farm to realize that what he has is unique to Milton, is safe, an interesting to experience, and is consistent with our cities rural character."
Mr.Riopelle nor his attorney Don Rolader responded for comment.
One thing is for certain. As the city continues to grow, there will be more debated topics. The question is, can Milton Georgia keep its promise of a "rural" community or will it evolve into something else? Only time will tell.