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New Sewickley pair's rescue of big dogs threatened in zoning dispute

| Thursday, March 28, 2013, 11:42 p.m.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Noreen and Rich Kohl with just a few of their large breed rescue dogs at their New Birghton, New Sewickley Townhsip home Wednesday, March 27, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Rich Kohl relaxes with several of his large breed rescue dogs in his New Brighton, New Sewickley Township home Wednesday, March 27, 2013. He and his wife Noreen have 20 dogs presently.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Bubba the mastiff reaches out to his caretaker Noreen Kohl in their New Sewicley home Wednesday, March 27, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Johnny, an inquisitive mastiff, at Noreen and Rich Kohl's New Brighton, New Sewickley Township home Wednesday, March 28, 2013. He is one of 20 rescue dogs presently owned by the Kohl's, looking for wonderful homes.

The question of whether a dog rescue operation in Beaver County qualifies as a nonprofit centers on a zoning dispute that threatens its existence.

Rich and Noreen Kohl of New Sewickley started Gentle Ben's Giant Breed Rescue out of their home 11 years ago, but this month the township zoning board classified it as a commercial kennel and denied them a variance to run it in a residential area.

The zoning question did not arise until the township warned the Kohls for violating an ordinance that prohibits property owners from letting dogs bark uncontrollably, said Township Manager Walter Beighey.

"Our concern is that there aren't many rescues like ours that specialize in large breeds," said Noreen Kohl, 49. "If we were shut down, the dogs would have to be turned over to a shelter, and some might have to be euthanized if they can't be adopted."

New Sewickley's zoning code says that any property keeping five or more domestic animals for economic gain is considered a commercial kennel, requiring at least five acres in an agricultural zone.

"I don't think anybody questions the nobility of the enterprise the Kohls are engaged in," said John Petrosh, solicitor for the zoning board. "The zoning hearing board has to apply the zoning rules."

Noreen Kohl and her attorney, Matthew Monsour, say Gentle Ben's is a registered nonprofit and any money it takes in through adoption fees goes to pay for veterinary care and feeding. The forms she filed with the Internal Revenue Service going back to 2008 - the earliest year available - show the rescue took in less than $25,000 for 2008 and 2009, and less than $50,000 in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Monsour said he plans to appeal the zoning board's decision. Harding said he heard from neighbors both for and against Gentle Ben's.

Rich Kohl, 53, said he and his wife make at least two visits a week to the Animal General veterinary practice in Cranberry to pick up medications or get their dogs checked, spending at least $10,000 a year of their own money. Dog food, which about 20 dogs now consume at a rate of about 75 pounds daily, is donated by the pallet by pet food companies.

Noreen Kohl proudly shows before-and-after pictures of Great Danes, mastiffs, Newfoundlands, St. Bernards and more that they have taken in with baseball-sized tumors, eyes swollen shut with infection or skin conditions that left the dog nearly bald.

If no one adopts the dogs, they stay as pets, surrounded by the rotating assortment of dogs the Kohls take in and adopt out,which Noreen Kohl estimated at about 50 per year.

Jack Harding, chairman of the Zoning Hearing Board, said the Kohls could not meet all the criteria, including setback regulations, for a "specialized animal raising and care" exception that would let them operate in a residential zone. Once the board submits a report to township supervisors, the Kohls would have 30 days to appeal to Common Pleas court.

If the Kohls lose the appeal, Noreen Kohl said she won't give up the dogs if she can help it.

"There's no limit in the zoning code on the number of personal pets I can have. ... They'll all just be mine," she said.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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