In a new twist, Freedom zoning inspector issues new ag exemption for Duke’s dog barn

Image of the Duke's dog training facility
Duke’s K9 Dash ‘N Splash. Submitted photo

The saga of a Freedom Township dog training business continues.

Michelle Filler, owner of Duke’s Dash N’ Splash at 6948 State Route 303, received a second agricultural exemption certificate from the township on Jan. 10, specifically for the purpose of constructing a 60-by-100-foot building for her business.

She and her lawyer have claimed that the barn is agricultural. And the township’s trustees and its zoning inspector have all at one time or another agreed.

In March 2022, the zoning inspector issued Filler an agricultural exemption, but the township’s Board of Zoning Appeals voided it in a 3-2 vote that May. Filler took the case to court, and Portage County Common Pleas Court Judge Laurie Pittman upheld the BZA’s reversal on Dec. 6.

The Portage County building department initially told Filler she did not need a county building permit, only to later issue a stop work order that it almost immediately pedaled back, allowing her to enclose her partially constructed barn against the weather.

Filler’s second certificate rescinds the building department’s stop work order, freeing Filler to proceed with her plans, Portage County Building Director Randy Roberts said.

“Judge Pittman’s ruling stands,” said Warner Mendenhall, Filler’s attorney. “It limits the use of the property to agricultural uses, which includes the boarding and care of dogs.”

In steady opposition to those plans have been Filler’s neighbor Dorothy Maur and former township trustee John Zizka. Zizka has long held that Filler’s intended use of the barn for her business means she would need a conditional use permit and oversight from the county building department. The barn, he and Maur have insisted, is intended for commercial purposes.

The president of North American Diving Dogs, which organizes canine dock diving events, agrees that Filler’s use is commercial. President Debra Markwardt said NADD previously had a contract with Duke’s but has severed ties because Filler did not comply with the organization’s permitting rules.

“The only statement NADD ever made was to a government official. They asked if any NADD facility (dock diving or dog training) was agricultural. NADD responded, no, all of our independent NADD facilities are all commercial businesses,” Markwardt said in an email. “They all have to get a ‘Special Use Permit,’ including ones in Ohio. Also, if they did have land in agriculture, it was taken out of agriculture and rezoned as commercial. A dog training facility that hosts dog events is concerned commercial.”

If Maur still wants to dispute the construction of Filler’s barn, her next step would be to appeal once again to the township’s Board of Zoning Appeals, Trustee Jeff Derthick said.

“I don’t intend to appeal it,” said Al Schrader, Maur’s attorney. “I intend to pursue it in the Common Pleas Court and ask the court to enforce her order. I think they’re in contempt of court because the court ruled that it’s not exempt, and the zoning authority, in spite of the court order, issued yet another exemption.”

The contempt of court action would be against Freedom Zoning Inspector Lou Mincek, and perhaps the Freedom trustees, even though Mincek and Derthick cleared the second agricultural exemption certificate with Assistant Portage County Prosecutor Brett Bencze before getting the go-ahead to issue the document.

Schrader said the township officials would have to show the court how they’re not in violation of Pittman’s order, and the court would then have to figure out how to enforce its original order.

“It’s a mess. I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Derthick said. “Lawyers are going to figure this out.”

“Things seem to change almost daily,” Filler said. “As of this moment, we have what we need to finish the building and continue to operate as we originally planned.”

That means using the structure for training and boarding dogs, as well as storing agricultural products and equipment, she said.

Zizka said his concern all along was that Filler comply with township zoning regulations but insisted he is not going to act as “flag bearer” for the current board of trustees or the residents.

“My only concern was that she comply with zoning and getting a proper zoning certificate. I’ve said that publicly numerous times,” he said, labeling the current situation “bizarre” while insisting it is out of his hands.

Maur did not return The Portager’s request for comment.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.