Coon Rapids snake breeder appeals new city orders

Scott Nellis plans to take the city of Coon Rapids to court if the city does not allow him to continue to breed snakes in his Coon Rapids home, which he then sells at reptile shows and via the Internet.

Back in March, the Coon Rapids City Council put on hold administrative compliance orders that would have required Nellis to remove all the snakes, lizards, rodents and insects from his property at 10320 Grouse St. N.W.

Nellis had appealed that decision by the city’s Board of Adjustment and Appeals upholding the staff order as well as the city’s building inspection department’s classification of 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, inadequate mechanical systems, fire code safety issues and the use of extension cords instead of permanent wiring.

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

Following the council decision, City Attorney Dave Brodie and Community Development Director Marc Nevinski met with Nellis at his home, but were unable to find common ground.

As a result, the city reinstituted the compliance orders through the administrative citations process – one alleging that Nellis was in violation of the city’s non-domestic animal ordinance which prohibits certain types of snakes and the other ordering removal of wood shavings used as animal bedding and animal waste from the backyard.

Nellis appealed those orders and met with Hearing Examiner Cheryl Bennett, the city’s housing and zoning coordinator, who was not involved in the issuance of the compliance orders or the inspections of the property.

In May, Bennett rescinded those citations because of “technical notice issues with the citations.”

But Bennett did not address the merits of the citations.

The city issued new citations to meet the technical issues, but also changed one of them.

The non-domestic animal ordinance violation remained, but the second citation is now a violation of the home occupation law.

Nellis had complied with the outside wood shavings and animal waste removal order, according to Bennett.

He appealed and another meeting with Bennett took place.

Last week, Bennett issued a ruling affirming both citations.

Nellis immediately appealed both decisions and they will be heard by the Board of Appeals and Adjustment at its Thursday, Dec. 6 at 6:30 p.m., according to Bennett.

If the board upholds the citations, then any appeal will not go back to the council under the city code, but straight to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, Bennett said.

Nellis will take the issue to the courts if necessary, he said this week.

At the time of the appeal in March, Nellis said that he had 363 snakes, 61 lizards and some 321 rodents – the rats and mice are used a food for the snakes.

According to Bennett, the non-domestic order violation applied to 91 of Nellis’ pythons and boas.

Bennett also ruled that Nellis’ operation was not incidental and secondary to the primary use of the house as a residence, a requirement for a home occupation, she said.

In staff’s visits to Nellis’ home the level of ammonia products emanating from keeping the animals was “overpowering” and the breeding of the snakes was not an incidental use of the home, Bennett said.

Bennett will provide written findings for her decisions to the board at the appeals hearing, she said.

According to Nellis, the city’s non-domestic ordinance is unconstitutional, arbitrary and unscientific.

In an interview with the Herald this week, Nellis said when the council discussed the non-domestic animal ordinance before its adoption in 2010, meeting minutes show that then-City Attorney Stoney Hiljus told councilmembers that existing uses should be “grandfathered in” and allowed to continue when the ordinance was adopted.

That language was not included in the final draft of the ordinance, he said.

He was not aware the council was considering a non-domestic animal ordinance and if he had been, he would have made his concerns known, Nellis said.

According to Nellis, the ordinance did exempt the keeping of cows on 20 acres or more once a resident complained.

Through sales at reptile shows, he has reduced the number of snakes in his home, Nellis said.

But he said the ordinance is arbitrary in that it singles out specific snakes – boas and pythons – without regard for the different types of snakes in those breeds.

When another Twin Cities community passed a dog breeding law banning pit bulls, that was thrown out by the courts for singling out a certain breed, Nellis said.

Moreover, snakes that are prohibited under the Coon Rapids non-domestic animal ordinance, are sold legally in pet stores in the city, he said.

“That is discriminatory,” Nellis said.

The python and boa snakes of the Boidae family that he breeds are non-venomous and harmless, he said.

According to Nellis, the No. 1 selling snake in the U.S. and the world, especially Europe, is the Ball Python, which has been captive bred for more than 40 years.

In his view, his breeding of snakes does not violate the city’s home occupation regulations and is secondary and incidental to the primary use of his residential as his home, Nellis said.

Nellis has measured his house and the amount of space taken by his animals and reptiles comes to 22 percent, he said.

“I have no business signs, nor have I structurally changed the residence,” Nellis said.

Nellis made it clear that should the Board of Adjustment and Appeals deny his appeals, then his next stop will be the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

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

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.

Nellis’ activities came to the attention of the city in October 2011 when Leya Drabczak, housing inspector, went to the backyard of his 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 Chief Building Official Doug Whitney’s report to the council at the March appeal hearing, 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 stated.

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, the report stated.

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

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.

“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 wrote in his report to the council.

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

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

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

And he said the ventilation in his house was 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, Nellis told the council.

Peter Bodley is at [email protected]

  • Alan Williams

    Typical city against a resident. Here are some facts:
    Boa’s are not allowed in the City according to code, so Mr Nellis is in violation. What is wrong with that? :-
    Boa’s come in different species. The particular type he has don’t grow over 2ft long. Not a danger AT ALL to ANYONE. – We should be working with the resident to understand our own flawed code.
    Pet smart sells the same products in Coon Rapids. Discrimination.
    A smart city council would look at this code which is inadequate and make some changes in order to accommodate a citizen. Rather, the city staff and council go to war with a citizen. Standard operating procedure – Welcome to Coon Rapids, here are your fines and here are your orders.

    They have mandated that he get his ammonia levels down to 1 part per million or less. Here is the difficulty with that: They don’t know what this level means yet they mandate it. OSHA has determined that 25 parts per million is a safe environment. The snake home was measured at 20 PPM downstairs and 10 PPM upstairs – This city has no authority to mandate a level of any particle below safe standards. If you have a bathroom in your home, you have ammonia levels. If you have a cat in your home, your ammonia levels are high.

    They had an inspector with 70 hours of training testifying that the electrical outlets were overloaded – Again, no authority or expertise. If you overload an outlet, the circuit breaker opens up. All witnesses talked about the odors – All witnesses were witness to the witnesses. I find that rather strange, and possibly in violation of due process.

    The positive outcome of the appeal was that they did not mandate he get rid of all of his snakes and all of his equipment, something the city staff advised council to adopt. They only want him to get rid of those darn 2ft Boa’s, and other harmless animals.

    I counted 16 city employees at this hearing, no doubt we will have another 16 at the next hearing, then we’ll have our own Perry Mason at the district court with all of the witnesses available (this time segregated). All this money spent rather than perform analytic work on the flawed city code.

    After all that “lack of expert” testimony – The appeals board members decided that they were only there to see if City code was being violated. Seems to me we didn’t need all the drama of a hearing.

    It is sad that we have a system which avoids the focus on what is right and chooses to fight to be right.

    I thought the whole hearing was a mockery, not required, and testimony to a group needing to be right.

    Looking forward to district court…