Plenty of zoning fights involve monkey business, but only one has actual monkeys.
The future of those animals -- and several hundred squirrels, rabbits and other creatures at Frisky's Wildlife and Primate Sanctuary in Woodstock -- was hanging in the balance last night as the Howard County Board of Appeals debated whether to allow the center to keep operating on its 3.7 acres.
Frisky's, which has operated for years without the land-use approval it needs, is trying to gain approval as a "charitable and philanthropic institution."
The board was still deliberating at 10 p.m. Safety concerns of neighbors who share a driveway with Frisky's seemed to weigh heavily on three members of the five-member panel -- and the thought that any permissions it gives will apply to anyone who ever owns the land.
Chairman Robert C. Sharps said he felt "very comfortable" with the management provided by Colleen Layton, who runs the sanctuary, and very uncomfortable at the thought of who might take over after her.
"I am standing so unbalanced on this fence that if I fall one way, it would certainly be with conditions that I approve this," he said, calling it the most difficult case he has heard. "I would probably approve this with the condition that they would not be able to have those primates."
Board member Pat Patterson was leaning the same way.
"I do believe there is a sanctuary needed in the area," he said.
Board member Jacqueline Scott, who said she was inclined to deny the request completely, noted that homes are nearby and that Howard County prohibits people from keeping exotic animals such as monkeys.
"The use as presented before us -- it doesn't add up," she said.
Board member Albert J. Hayes had not made up his mind, but board member James Pfefferkorn seemed strongly inclined to let Frisky's operate with its monkeys. He suggested that the board might want to keep Layton from taking in any more macaques, which can carry herpes B.
"There are animals that need help," he said, explaining his position.
Layton runs Frisky's full time from her home on Old Frederick Road, which she bought in 1993. She said she started caring for injured wildlife 32 years ago.
Complaints that she was operating without proper approval landed her before the Board of Appeals more than two years ago, where the hearings have been punctuated by stuffed-animal-carrying supporters and TV news cameras.
Last year, the Board of Appeals voted that "charitable" applies to groups doing good works for humans, not animals, but the panel reversed itself several months later.
Still, the true sticking point has always been the monkeys.
"They're dangerous," said attorney David A. Carney, who represents three neighbors opposed to the sanctuary. "The next-door neighbors are frightened. You know what? I'm frightened. I'm so glad I don't live next to this facility."
Frisky's attorneys argued that the monkeys posed no health threat to the community -- it's an "unrealistic fear," said lawyer Sherman Robinson, who presented a study to buttress his case. The attorneys also said the county prohibition on primates should not affect the sanctuary because it was licensed last year as an "exhibitor" of animals by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But several board members said that license does not seem to fit well with Frisky's mission as a sanctuary rather than a zoo. Sharps said he had no idea what the license represented.
"What does it actually permit?" he wondered.