This story was corrected at 4:52 p.m. Friday, Aug. 10. An explanation follows the story.
A Fairfax County zoning ordinance is keeping some residents from adopting dogs from the county’s animal shelter.
Section 2-512 of the ordinance states residents seeking to keep three dogs on their property must have a home on a lot measuring at least 12,500 square feet. The ordinance does not take into consideration the breed or size of any dog. For cats, the ordinance has no such restrictions.
The ordinance exempts only “existing dogs” that have been continually kept on a smaller lot “prior to Oct. 11, 1977.”
“I don’t know any 35-year-old dogs still living, do you?” asked Roy Perkins, a Herndon attorney who in late July was prevented from adopting a Pekingese dog from the shelter because he and his wife already own two Pekingese dogs, and live in a home on a 10,000-square-foot lot.
A Pekingese is considered a toy breed that is about a foot long and stands an average of 9 inches tall, according to the American Kennel Club.
“We are responsible pet owners and have plenty of room,” Erika Perkins said. “We saw a Pekingese at the shelter and very much wanted to adopt it, but we were denied because of this ridiculous law. How many dogs are killed each year because they don’t get adopted? Here we are trying to adopt one and they tell us we can’t.”
According to state records, the Fairfax County Animal Shelter euthanized 1,239 animals in 2011, including 600 dogs, but Shelter Director Karen Diviney says no animals are ever euthanized for space considerations alone.
“In our history there were times that we did that, but no longer,” she said. “Through a rescue partner network and an extensive foster program, we find homes for all our adoptable animals.”
Still, the zoning ordinance prevents some county resident from adopting dogs in need of permanent homes.
“We don’t really keep track of how many people are refused adoption due to the county zoning ordinance,” said Michelle Hankins, community outreach program manager for the shelter. “But we must abide by all county ordinances and state laws.”
The Perkins say the ordinance should take into account the size of the dogs in question, as well as the lot size.
Small dogs have no problems being adopted out from the county shelter and Diviney said she feels that changing the zoning ordinance would have no overall effect on the number of dogs adopted.
But for the Perkins, who wanted to adopt a dog and were denied, that is small consolation.
“We think we can handle three Pekingese dogs, which are smaller than most cats,” Roy Perkins said.
Many animal rights organizations tend to look down at lot-size restrictions when it comes to pet adoptions, said Heather Bialy, director of shelter services for the Humane Society of the United States.
“I understand the concept,” she said. “Limits are made to prevent hoarding and other unsanitary and detrimental conditions for animals and their owners, but they also inadvertently punish responsible pet owners. Proper pet care has nothing to do with space and everything to do with responsibility. There are people who can properly take care of three dogs in one apartment — and others who may have an acre of land but can’t properly take care of one dog.”
When it comes to regulating pet ownership, Bialy said her organization advocates local governments to adopt responsible owner laws in place of lot-size restrictions.
“We would be happy to reach out to Fairfax County and help them make the transition,” she said.
A special permit for a zoning appeal can be applied for by residents seeking an exception to the existing three-dog rule, Fairfax County spokesman Brian Worthy said.
“Once the permit application is accepted, there will be a public hearing within 90 days,” he said.
But for the Perkins, the point is now moot.
“The Pekingese we wanted is no longer there,” Erika Perkins said. “We were going to pursue the special permit but when we went back to the shelter, the Pekingese was already gone. Fortunately, I was told that it had been adopted and had not been put to sleep.”
According to Diviney, that was never an issue. “That dog was quickly adopted and was never in any danger of being euthanized,” she said.
This story was updated to clarify that animals are not euthanized for overcrowding at the Fairfax County Animal Shelter.