Would snake farm devalue property?

Deseret Morning News, Saturday, September 23, 2006

By Jeremy Twitchell
Deseret Morning News

MAPLETON — Though some issues surrounding an application for a snake farm here have been resolved, the local planning commission could not answer questions about possible effects on property values — questions raised by highly resistant residents.

After three and a half hours of tense public commentary and deliberation, the Mapleton City Planning Commission on Thursday voted 5-2 to continue consideration of Dan Sutherland’s application to set up his snake-breeding business in town.

Sutherland had applied for a conditional-use permit to breed ball python snakes and the rodents to feed them in two barns on his property in an agricultural area. The commission agreed that such a use would be permissible under certain conditions, but it continued the matter after members were unable to come up with a condition that would address resident concerns over how the business could affect their property values.

The commission will meet with a representative from the Utah Property Rights Ombudsman’s Office to evaluate the potential impact the Sutherland operation could have on the value of surrounding properties and receive suggestions on how to ameliorate any such effects. Commission members did not specify when such a meeting would occur or when Sutherland’s application would be revisited. The occasionally bitter meeting Thursday night capped weeks of angst and heated debate that have created a rift in the rural town. More than 200 residents crammed into the City Council chambers and overflowed out into the hallway.

When he addressed the commission, Sutherland expressed regret for the current state of affairs in the community.

“I’m a bit overwhelmed by everybody that is here, and I’m sorry it’s come to this,” he said. “It was never our intention to have anything like this come about. We tried to do everything the way we were supposed to, and we wanted our family and our children to be welcomed into this community and be part of it.”

Sutherland’s attorney and a veterinarian who spoke on Sutherland’s behalf attempted to calm many of the concerns raised by residents regarding questions of odor and safety.

Dr. Yoeny Calas-Dobson, who operates Riverwoods Pet Hospital in Provo, said the odor of the snakes would be minimal, if at all detectable, and that they would not pose a threat even if they escaped.

“These guys have probably lost a lot of the instinct to survive in the wild,” she said.

Randy Spencer, Sutherland’s attorney, questioned if those opposed fully understood the realities of snakes.

“The people of Mapleton are good people, educated people, but I doubt that there are many of them that have any experience with the breeding and raising of snakes,” he said.

Nine residents spoke during the public comment period, all expressing sharp objections to the proposal. Property values were of particular concern.

“For many of us here, our homes are our largest investments, and approval of a snake farm, which many of us do not want here, would certainly have a detrimental effect,” resident Marilyn Raymer said.

Another resident, Ron Jensen, said his family was attempting to sell a large plot of land a short distance from the Sutherland property, and the buyers withdrew their $1 million offer when they learned of the proposed snake farm.

Others worried about odors and health concerns, but the message was clear: Snakes are not welcome in Mapleton.

“Mapleton is a beautiful city, and a snake farm doesn’t belong here,” resident Gwen Warren said.

The question of whether the snake farm was allowed under city ordinances was a complex issue raising several smaller questions, which Planning Commission members decided one by one.

At the outset of the hearing, Planning Director Karen McCandless informed members that they would have to decide if snake breeding was a conditional use according to the defined standards, if breeding rodents was a conditional use, if the breeding of rodents for the purpose of feeding the snakes was allowed, how many snakes and rodents the Sutherlands could have if approved, and under what conditions their application could be approved.

The commission had voted in the affirmative on each of the questions and had set conditions to address a number of concerns, including odor, security, animal health and human health, before encountering an impasse on the property rights issue.

E-mail: jtwitchell@desnews.com

© 2006 Deseret News Publishing Company