Florida: Levy Co. rules against big cat owner
By Jeff M. Hardison
BRONSON – Not unlike his namesake, John Paul Jones made a bold statement June 5 after the Levy County Commission told him and his wife Jennifer that they must move their exotic and dangerous animals.
“We’re not moving,” Jones said after the meeting.
“I have not yet begun to fight,” is what eighteenth century naval hero John Paul Jones said to a British commander.
John Paul Jones of Levy County, and his wife Jennifer, say they will continue to fight Levy County in regard to the county’s requirement for them to have a special exception to possess several exotic and dangerous animals.
Levy County Commissioner Tony Parker seconded a motion by County Commissioner Lilly Rooks, in whose district the couple resides, to uphold the recommendation of the Levy County Planning Commission to deny the special exception.
A special exception is just that, County Building and Zoning Director Rob Corbitt noted during the hearing on Tuesday. It is an exception to the rule regarding what is normally allowed in a certain zoned area.
The Joneses lives 7.5 miles south of Chiefland on about 9.6 acres of land at 6351 N.W. Levy County Road 336.
Although the couple lives on land zoned as Agriculture/Rural Residential, the Planning Commission and County Commission ruled there are too many nearby houses for exotic and dangerous animals to be kept and bred. There are 10 homes within a one-quarter mile radius, Corbitt said.
Mrs. Jones said she has proof that the county gave a special exception to Michael Sullo and he lived in a similarly zoned area, but the number of houses in this area when the exception was granted to him was not stated.
Mr. Jones is licensed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to sell or exhibit cougars, bobcats, leopards, alligators, crocodiles, otters, tortoise, venomous and non-venomous snakes, other reptiles, amphibians and other animals.
The applicant does not want to open the structure for visitors. He simply wants to keep the animals housed there. Mr. Jones puts on shows for children to see these animals, but those shows are never at the site where the creatures are kept.
Neighbors expressed concern about animals escaping and injuring or killing children and livestock. The Jones couple said no animals have escaped from them before, and their practices and equipment exceed the minimal standards set by the state for cages and safety.
Corbitt said that to keep exotic animals within one-quarter mile of an area designated as residential is prohibited by county ordinance.
The Planning Commission and County Commission determined the area where the Jones now live is a residential designation, because of the close proximity of houses to where they are keeping the animals.
This issue of property rights, however, spills over into a question of whether the FWC can tell the County Commission about zoning laws.
Mrs. Jones said the Florida Constitution gives FWC power over where the animals may be kept.
County Attorney Anne Brown said the county has determined where the proper place to keep exotic and dangerous animals. The FWC, Brown said, is not allowed to preempt the county’s zoning laws. Corbitt said there are many other places in the county where this type of operation would be allowed.
FWC Officer Ken Holmes said he disagrees with Brown.
The Levy County Commissioners cannot have an ordinance that says this couple can’t have exotic wildlife, Holmes said. The county can regulate the type of cages, but not where in the county the animals may be housed, he said.
County Commission Chairman Sammy Yearty tried to help Holmes understand why Yearty believes the county attorney is correct and the wildlife officer is incorrect.
“I think what she was saying is that the local government can establish regulations where these things can go,” Yearty said.
Holmes said the county can regulate the business aspect of the property, but the county cannot rule as to the places in the county that the animals may be kept.
This is a key difference of opinion between the FWC and the Levy County Board of County Commissioners.
Three cougars, one leopard, six otters, two owls, five species of parrots, three crocodiles, one alligator, three gopher tortoises, two African tortoises, a tarantula, some scorpions, two hedgehogs, and a couple of snakes will now have to be moved as a result of the County Commission ruling.
Commissioner Nancy Bell asked the other commissioners to give the couple some time to find a place to relocate the animals, but Commissioner Rooks said Mr. Jones had earlier said he could move all of the animals if a hurricane was coming. So, Rooks refused to change her motion to deny the special exception, to allow the couple time.
Mr. Jones had earlier said he planned to hire an attorney to fight this issue on a question of individual property rights versus the government’s right to say where exotic and dangerous animals may be kept.
“We’re not moving,” Mr. Jones said.