Coon Rapids man breeds, sells snakes

Scott Nellis breeds snakes – lots of them – in his Coon Rapids home, then sells them at reptile shows and via the Internet.

Ball pythons are among the snakes that Scott Nellis breeds at his Coon Rapids home and sells at reptile shows and over the internet. Internet photo

Ball pythons are among the snakes that Scott Nellis breeds at his Coon Rapids home and sells at reptile shows and over the internet. Internet photo courtesy of Jorden Perrett

Nellis, 10320 Grouse St. N.W., is hoping that the Coon Rapids City Council will continue to let him do so.

He was at the council meeting March 6 appealing a decision by the city’s Board of Adjustment and Appeals to uphold an administrative compliance order that would require Nellis to remove all the snakes, lizards, rodents and insects from his property.

Not only that but the city’s building inspection department has classified the home as unfit for human habitation and an unsafe building or structure.

Those orders were based on a staff determination that there were air quality issues, inadequacy of mechanical systems, fire code safety issues and the use of extension cords instead of permanent wiring.

However, those orders, for which Nellis was originally given 45 days to comply, were put on hold until the appeals process has been completed.

And the council did not take action March 6 to either to grant Nellis’ appeal or uphold the board’s decision.

Instead, the council on a 4-3 vote tabled the issue to give staff a chance to resolve the issues with Nellis.

Voting for the motion were Councilmembers Paul Johnson, Jerry Koch, Melissa Larson and Scott Schulte; voting no were Mayor Tim Howe and Councilmembers Denise Klint and Bruce Sanders.

Besides the administrative orders, there are two other issues, which were not part of the appeal.

One is the city’s non-domestic animal ordinance adopted in 2010, under which many of the snakes that Nellis keeps in his home would be prohibited, and the other is the fact that Nellis does not have a conditional use permit from the city to conduct a business out of his home.

The council did not set a date for when the issue would come back for consideration as an agenda item.

According to Community Development Director Marc Nevinski, who oversees the city’s code enforcement and building inspection departments, he and Assistant City Attorney Dave Brodie plan to meet with Nellis soon to talk about the issues.

“I think all of them are manageable,” said Chief Building Official Doug Whitney.

In Nevinski’s view, this case is an “anomaly,” he said.

“We have not seen anything like it before and I doubt that we will see it again,” Nevinski said.

According to Nellis, he has been raising and breeding snakes and a few lizards since 1996 and at the Coon Rapids residence since 2005.

He attends four reptile shows a year – two in Omaha, Neb., one in Chicago, Ill., and another in Bloomington, Nellis said.

Nellis sells snakes at those shows as well as via his Internet site, shipping the snakes to customers via UPS and FedEX.

Customers do not come to his home, where he lives alone, to purchase snakes, Nellis said.

According to an inventory of the animals at his residence he compiled at the request of the city in late February, Nellis lists 363 snakes, 61 lizards and some 321 rodents – the rats and mice are used a food for the snakes.

Nellis’ activities came to the attention of the city in October 2011 when Leya Drabczak, housing inspector, went to the backyard of Nellis’ split-entry home following a report of a foul smell coming from a pile of wood shavings used for animal bedding that had been disposed of in the backyard.

According to Whitney’s report to the council, Drabczak did an Internet search and found Nellis’ website on his snake breeding business.

An administrative search warrant was obtained to search the inside of the home, for which Drabczak was accompanied by members of the Coon Rapids police and fire departments and Humane Society officer Keith Streff.

A very strong smell of ammonia forced the inspectors to wear masks during the search, the report to the council states.

According to the report, one room on the main floor and three other areas on the lower level housed snakes of various sizes and species in commercial cages with glass fronts and sliding doors. The cages were stacked on top of one another from floor to ceiling.

In all the rooms, the cages were around the perimeter of the rooms.

But in the main floor room the cages were also stacked in an island in the center of the room, with the walkways between the cages less than three feet in width.

That arrangement of the cages blocked full access to the window, obstructing egress, the staff report states.

Besides snakes, the lower level rooms also contained cages of rats and mice, as well as hissing cockroaches, meal worms and various lizards.

Three large aquariums containing lizards were on the main level.

According to the report, the fire department and North Metro Chemical Assessment Team did an air quality inspection and found the levels of ammonia gas were elevated and higher than is normally found in a residential home.

The ammonia level was 10 parts per million on the upper level and 20 parts per million on the lower level.

By comparison, the typical residential home, when tested for ammonia level, registers a reading of zero or less than 1 par per million, said Coon Rapids Fire Department Capt. Tim Gilsrud.

“It is my determination that a residence {like this home} is not designed to be used in the manner the property owner is currently using it as none of the rooms that houses the snakes and other animals had either adequate sanitation or ventilation,” Whitney stated in his report to the council.

Streff concluded in his report that the interior of the home was “fairly well kept,” but had a nearly overwhelming odor consistent with a musk common to the rodent and reptile family.

According to Streff, the animals are stable, but lack proper ventilation and overcrowding presents a risk for disease and cross contamination.

Streff recommended that Nellis move his animals to a properly zoned commercial facility.

Staff told council that Nellis had been cooperative throughout the process.

Nellis presented both written and verbal statements to the council.

All the snakes in the home, which include Ball and Australian pythons, California Kingsnakes and various boas, are not venomous and can be purchased at stores such as Petco and Pet Smart, Nellis said.

“Snakes can bite like any other animal,” he said.

“But it is only a little puncture wound which will be fine if you wash it in soap and water.”

The largest of his snakes is 7 1/2 feet in length and will not grow to more than 13 feet, he said.

Moving the reptiles would be an “extreme financial and emotional hardship” and to do so during the winter months would be harmful to them.

According to Nellis, at the time of the initial inspection in October 2011 which found the high ammonia levels, he had been on the road for three weekends at reptile shows and had not kept up with his regular cleaning schedule with the rodents.

Since then he has redoubled his cleaning and is “proud to say there are no air quality issues in my house at this time,” Nellis said.

And he would consider purchasing a purifier costing some $1,300 to address any city concerns about air quality, he said.

The way he stacks the cages is an efficient use of space “like kitchen cabinets,” Nellis told the council.

To deal with the number of extension cords in the basement, Nellis plans to install additional electrical outlets in the future, he said.

As well, Nellis said the ventilation in his house is more than adequate because snakes, lizards and insects do not fare well in overly ventilated, drafty areas.

In addition, the temperatures needed for the snakes are thermostatically controlled and the cages are not flammable, he said.

To address the issue of excessive storage in the house creating a hazard for firefighters and emergency responders in an event of an emergency, Nellis said in his written statement that he has a storage unit into which he is moving some things.

Nellis, who work for UPS and drives nights, said the city’s actions had affected him emotionally and been very upsetting.

“This is my private home,” Nellis wrote. “It is not a business open to the public.

“This is my house and home that I thought I was free to do anything that is legal.

“I should be free to choose what legal hobbies I wish to pursue.”

According to Councilmember Jerry Koch, who visited with Nellis at his home, the cages were “racked,” rather than stacked, in a very organized manner.

As for the smell, Koch, a realtor by profession, said that the odor had been a lot worse in some of the houses he had been to.

“I respect staff, but this is a little over the top,” he said.

He did not believe that the number of cages presented a structural problem for the house, Koch said.

As he was leaving Nellis’ home, Koch ran into two neighbors, who told him they have no problems with what Nellis is doing, he said.

“They offered their full support to him,” Koch said.

Councilmember Melissa Larson agreed with Koch. She had a pet boa at one time and she has pet rats, Larson said.

“Snakes don’t smell,” she said. “People like them as pets.”

But Councilmember Denise Klint said she did not have the expertise that staff does on this issue and was prepared to uphold the board of appeals and adjustment on this issue while having staff work with Nellis on compliance.

Koch asked Nellis if it would be reasonable for him to sell some of the snakes.

Maybe 60 or 70, but it is a tight market and “people want a bargain,” Nellis said.

“There’s lots of competition,” he said.

For Councilmember Bruce Sanders, what Nellis was doing was a business, not a hobby.

And Mayor Tim Howe said the numbers were “uncontrollable” which can’t be maintained properly.

“It’s just too much,” Howe said. “Get it down to 10 to 20 then it’s something I could consider.”

According to Councilmember Scott Schulte, there are two issues – air quality and fire safety.

He did not know the answer to the how high the ammonia level should be, but the aisles between the stacked cages needed to be 36 inches, not 27 inches, to meet fire code, Schulte said.

Nellis is extremely knowledgeable and has been very cooperative with staff in sharing information, said Councilmember Paul Johnson.

But the issues, while they can’t be negotiated “up here” at the council table, need resolution, he said.

Sanders said he did not want Nellis to have to remove all the snakes and rodents, but it remained a public safety issue for him, which was why he made a motion to uphold the board of adjustment and appeals decision; it was seconded by Klint.

“Mr. Nellis has worked 15 years to get to this point,” Koch said. “It will be difficult for him to comply in 45 days.”

Johnson moved to table the issue because council “was going round and round on this” to give staff time to work with Nellis in an effort to reach a solution that can be brought back to the council at future meeting for action, he said.

A motion to table, which does not allow discussion and superceded the previous motion to uphold the board decision, passed 4-3.

But after the vote, Howe directed that staff also address with Nellis the issue of the non-domestic animals and the need for a conditional use permit for a home occupation.

Peter Bodley is at peter.bodley@ecm-inc.com


  • e

    If the neighbors don’t mind, he pays income taxes on the profits, and he fixes the safety issues (wiring, egress) who the hell cares. How is it a public safety issue? Sounds like overly involved government to me

  • M

    As a snake hobbyist myself, those numbers are not that uncommon. For animals that only need to be fed and watered once a week and cleaned a couple of times a month, 100 snakes are as easy to care for as one large dog. I think the council members need to do a little more research before they tell someone what he can or can not do in his own home.

  • BG

    I wonder what would happen if the “search team” visited any home looking for the same “violations.”

    Some of those noted seemed superfluous, such as “walkways between the cages less than three feet in width. That arrangement of the cages blocked full access to the window, obstructing egress, the staff report states.” I have an overly-large bedroom set in an average-sized room which does not allow for three feet between the edge of the bed and the dressers PLUS I have bedside tables in front of the windows which definitely blocks egress. I bet Mr. Nellis and I aren’t the only people in the metro area who have a window with unobstructed egress! Do you?

    I have a good friend with three cats and there are days when the odor can be quite overwhelming … and don’t even get me started on what my four dogs can smell like when it is raining and they come into the house wet and begin to warm up!!! If you really want an obnoxious odor, take a whiff of my sons when they come into the house with some friends after a fierce basketball session!! What do all of these things … along with Mr. Nellis’s “violations” … have in common? One, none of them pose a significant threat to the general public and two, none of them are the government’s concern! I don’t want my local, state or federal government dictating what I can or cannot do or keep in the privacy of my own home as long as it doesn’t infringe upon the rights (health and happiness) of others. Do you? Think it through before you answer that question, and don’t let a dislike for snakes sway your opinion.

    If you are interested in the issue of public safety, read the research!

    * A report published in 2009 at http://www.rexano.org/Statistics/Dog_Attack_1979_2005_Langley.pdf found that “Dog attacks are a major public health concern worldwide. Dogs bite over 4 million people resulting in the hospitalization of 6000 to 13 000 people each year in the United States. Rarely deaths may occur after an attack.”

    * According to the CDC (report at http://www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/images/dogbreeds-a.pdf ) “From 1979 through 1996, dog attacks resulted in more than 300 human dog bite-related fatalities.”

    * Another report from 2005 (find it at http://scark.org/docs/Animal%20Related%20Fatalities.pdf ) examined all animal-related fatalities in the United States from 1991-2001. “The average number of fatalities per year was 48 for hymenoptera [order which includes wasps, hornets and bees], 6 for spiders, and 5 for snakes [the study did not differentiate between fatalities from wild snakes vs. captive snakes].” “Among identified nonvenomous animals, dogs caused the majority of fatalities (about 19 per year).”

    * The above reports looked at fatalities, should we look more closely at the disfiguring injuries or infection rate of 20% related to reported dog and cat bites? Check out the findings at http://health.usf.edu/nocms/publicaffairs/now/pdfs/Lancet_MRSA_CatsDogs.pdf

    Am I advocating for legislation to remove our right to keep cats and dogs in our households? Certainly not! Mr. Nellis is within his rights to house animals (cats, dogs OR snakes) in a way that does not impinge upon the health or safety of those around him … as we all are!!

    BTW … I have kept exotic animals, including a variety of birds, small mammals, amphibians, invertebrates, and reptiles, for over 20 years. The most significant injury I have ever received was caused by tripping over a black Labrador Retriever in the middle of the night.

  • George

    I think the council is well within it’s right to tell someone what they can or cannot do on their property…If Mr. Nellis wishes to operate as a commercial business he needs to do so in a commerically zoned setting. Not in a residential location. We have enough problems in our neighborhoods already with folks who think because they “own their own property” anything goes….junk cars, garbage and stinky homes! Clean it up or get out!

  • Neighbor

    I am a neighbor of Scotts. I was present at the March 6 council meeting.

    When the city began their “horrific tale” of this nasty violation of “city code”, I thought to myself “well it sounds bad but if there is no injured party he has a right to do what he pleases in his own home and I wondered where he lived.

    When he came to the podium I immediately recognized him as the man who takes frequent walks through my neighborhood. I looked on the agenda for his address and realized he lived next door to another neighbor I have known for over 20 years. I couldn’t think of anything that stood out about the house next door because there isn’t anything that stands out.

    On his walks Scott pretty much keeps to himself and I would wave to him as he walked by but I didn’t know him personally until this meeting.

    As Scott began to articulate his side of the story it became clear, in my opinion, that this was a case of “knee jerk government abuse”.

    My wife and I were walking our dogs the following day and ran into Scott. We introduced ourselves and I asked him how this all got started. He explained that he used the wood chips and feces from the mice as mulch and the neighbor next door complained, not to him, but to the city. He ordered an extra garbage can and cleaned the wood chips up right away, problem solved, right?

    Well as we all are learning these days it’s big business for the government to abuse its citizens. This is how they justify their existence. Welcome to the nanny police state where we all need to be taken care of by a more enlightened control group.

    In the same neighborhood the City of Coon Rapids has created a public nuisance called “Trackside Dog Park” They have put this in a storm water retention area that drains to the Mississippi. There is dog crap all over and the place is so urine soaked that when it rains the stench is horrible (but water pollution is not a problem). There are dogs barking and fighting continuously. Dogs are frequently off leash and running loose in the neighborhood. I have been attacked by them a number of times. Cars are turning around in the middle of the street as children walk by to go to the only park in this small neighborhood that is bordered by busy boulevards and the railroad tracks. Many of these kids are afraid to go to the park because of the loose dogs. Hummingbird St, on the parks western border, ends on a cul de sac. Cul de sacs are designed to reduce traffic not increase traffic but the city in its infinite wisdom has quadrupled the amount of traffic. Many of these people believe the government has given them the “right” to trample our neighborhood and they will do whatever they want.

    Unfortunately the City will not restore the peace and remove the park to a more favorable location away from this residential area. The city chooses to be the biggest violator of its own ordinances but “when the government does it, it’s OK.

    The excuses they use are unavailable funds. However the mayor was able to find the funds for his pet project the $36mil hockey center. You see the mayor loves hockey and used to sit on the local hockey board. Oh and they have to build another government center to the tune of $20mil because they blundered the last one. Now we will have 3 government centers in Coon Rapids how fortunate!

    Thanks BG for your reports on public safety I will bring it to the attention of the council.

    In regards to your comments George, I believe this is the problem in this country today. We all have an ignorance of the rule of law in this country. That rule of law is called the constitution. The council is operating under color of law. Until folks enlighten themselves as to the difference we will soon be under complete totalitarian rule.
    My problem is the city is operating a “commercial like business” in a residential neighborhood destroying the peace and safety and ignoring its own ordinances designed to protect us. This is what a totalitarian government does. It abuses not protects.

    Scott Nellis is a peaceful honest man. Leave him alone!

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