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Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care Prevails in battle

Frank J. Severson, Mountain Democrat

PLACERVILLE — After a hearing that lasted nearly five hours, El Dorado County planning commissioners decided Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care can stay open for business.

The commission ruled Thursday the center must only care for animals under 1 year old and 100 pounds. It also must apply for a new special use permit or come into compliance with its existing permit within 120 days.

Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, on Cherry Hills Circle in South Lake Tahoe, sits in a residential area that was sparsely populated in 1986 when a special use permit was issued to Thomas and Cheryl Millham. The Millhams, who live in a residence on the property, operate the wildlife rehabilitation center for orphaned and injured birds and small animals.

The facility has expanded since 1986 and now has seven cages in addition to buildings that have housed bear cubs and bobcats, raising the issue of what exactly is a small animal.

“I think we are above and beyond what was contemplated with the original (permit) approval,” said Roger Evans, senior planner for the county Planning Department.

The issue came to a head in August 2000 when a building inspector noticed a 935-square-foot bear cub cage that stands about 17 feet tall. The cage is the central attraction whenever John McDougall, a developer who lives behind the wildlife facility, steps onto his back porch.

“I screwed up. I allowed those cages to be build without permits,” Tom Millham said. “Please, do not penalize Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care based upon a mistake I made.”

The issue came before the Planning Commission in the form of a variance request by the Millhams, who sought a finding the facility was operating as anticipated under the 1986 special use permit. They also wanted commissioners to allow the animal shelters, some of which stand too close to the property line, to stay where they are.

The commission did not issue a variance, putting the onus back on the Millhams. Cheryl Millham said she was confused by the ruling but the couple plans to take appropriate action.

“We have things that we have to do and we will be doing them,” she said Thursday evening.

About 40 supporters packed the hearing room. McDougall and his sister, Janet McDougall, also spoke highly of the facility but argued it has outgrown the neighborhood and does not comply with the original permit.

“I’m 100 percent behind the work they do,” said John McDougall. He didn’t object to the cage for birds of prey but he did have a problem with the bear pen and some of the other structures built after he bought his property.

“If they want to continue to expand, they need to move to a more appropriate location,” said Janet McDougall.

Rita McEwing from the Bear League said the Department of Fish and Game killed orphaned bear cubs before Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care supplied them refuge. “I beg you, please, to allow this work to continue.”

Roma Morris, director of the Tahoe Paradise Resort Improvement District, said, “They provide an invaluable and necessary service to our district. Revocation of the permit would be a greater crime than the one committed.”

In a comment aimed at McDougall, who moved to his property after the wildlife center was there, Jim Mueller said, “It’s like building a house by the airport and trying to get the airport closed.”

One issue that emerged was what constitutes a “small animal.”

“When we’re thinking small, we’re thinking baby,” said Sue Rutherdale, a member of the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care board.

Commissioner Alan Tolhurst had a different take: “It’s a home occupation that’s grown to a factory.”

The commissioners voted 5-0 that the cages and other structures were not consistent with the special use permit because they were too close to the property line. With Commissioner John MacCready voting no, they also amended the permit to specify animals could be no heavier than 100 pounds and no more than 1 year old. The Millhams must come back within 120 days to apply for another special use permit or make the buildings comply with the original permit.


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