By Mark Waite
Nye County Commissioners by a 3-2 vote Tuesday reversed a decision by the Pahrump Regional Planning Commission to deny a conditional use permit for Karl Mitchell’s animal sanctuary at 6061 N. Woodchips Rd.
Commissioners Gary Hollis and Butch Borasky voted against it.
The RPC deadlocked 3-3 the first time Mitchell’s application came before them in June, it was heard again in August when they voted 4-1 to deny the permit.
The sanctuary housing eight tigers and a liger — a cross between a lion and tiger — is on 20 acres in a rural homestead zone on property owned by Ray “The Flagman” Mielzynski.
Mitchell’s supporters showed up to speak before the county commission but no opponents, not even RPC members who voted against it. Mitchell also presented 583 signatures in favor of the sanctuary, mostly from out of town, from as far away as New Zealand, Greece and Brazil. The petition states tigers live longer in private shelters than those in the wild. Mitchell’s organization, Big Cat Encounters, houses them in an isolated area, it said.
Mitchell’s petition notes there are currently five other facilities operating without a conditional use permit.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals urged the commission to reject the application. PETA said, “Mitchell has a long and infamous history of violating federal and local laws and of neglecting and cruelly treating the animals who he keeps and exhibits.”
PETA said Mitchell’s federal exhibitor’s license has been permanently revoked; he is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; his facility doesn’t meet the definition of an animal sanctuary and allowing an individual with a patent disregard for the law to keep dangerous, exotic animals is unquestionably hazardous or disturbing to existing or future neighborhood uses.
But commissioners heard from his supporters.
Pahrump Town Board member Tom Waters said, “I see no reason that it would be disapproved. I have to say I fully support it after walking around and seeing what’s in there. I know there’s a lot of exotic animals in Pahrump, if they’re approved, I think this should be approved.”
Dr. Adam Hadland, Mitchell’s veterinarian, said “I never had any negative experiences or felt I was in fear. I would have no qualms about bringing my three-year-old with me and having him there. I feel they’re in a good location as far as Pahrump goes. I feel a lot of the negativity of people against it is lack of knowledge and fear.”
Pahrump Town Board member Vicky Parker, the only RPC member to vote in favor of the permit the second time around, said she visited Mitchell’s sanctuary, saw the bamboo around the perimeter and noticed the animals were in individual cages, which were then enclosed with perimeter fencing.
Parker said the RPC focused on the value of adjacent lots being diminished. She said Utilities Inc. wouldn’t provide service to those lots in the next decade, “so right now there isn’t much value to diminish.”
Parker said in her four years on the board it was the first time she heard the RPC quote a standard condition of approval, that the project must be a substantial improvement to property in the vicinity and in the community as a whole, in rejecting the application.
“I really had a feeling this was more personal than it was a land use issue,” Parker said. “If you look at the satellite view you can see that there’s nothing nearby. I found this real interesting, his nearest neighbor also has exotic animals.”
She added, “if this is not a proper location, then there is not a proper location anywhere in town.”
Pahrump Town Board member Harley Kulkin said when he sat on the RPC his job was to leave his personal feelings at home.
“I felt it was my job to organize, not eliminate lifestyles,” he said.
While there were concerns exotic animal owners from Las Vegas would relocate to Pahrump, Kulkin said the board has to recognize that as an opportunity.
John Bushko, a volunteer at Big Cat Encounters, said he drives to supermarkets in Las Vegas to pick up meat that ordinarily goes to the landfill to feed the tigers. He said Mitchell has helped the county animal control department and took in seven horses from Dream Chaser Ranch.
Nye County District Attorney Brian Kunzi told Commissioner Joni Eastley the RPC voted on it twice, though Eastley considered a tie vote a denial the first time around. During the first vote the RPC lacked a full board due to a vacancy, Kunzi said.
Eastley said she received lots of emails about the application.
“I personally have very strong feelings about this. As much as I would like my opinions to matter, in a case like this I don’t think my opinions matter because it is a land use issue. All I can say is look at the land codes and make a determination based on those codes whether this is a compatible land use,” she said.
Kunzi agreed and added Mitchell raised the point about other exotic animal owners who were grandfathered into the regulations.
But the county commission had to make findings for the record why they were overturning the RPC.
“Are you currently complying with all federal, state and local regulations?” Borasky asked.
“The answer is yes,” Mitchell replied. He produced a copy of an inspection report from animal control.
But Mitchell told Borasky he didn’t have a copy of licenses and permits from other agencies.
Commissioner Dan Schinhofen said, “you’re private property and what you want to do on private property and your rights stop at my nose.” But he added emails from people who own property next to Mitchell were in opposition, afraid their property values will go down.
Mitchell countered, “Neighboring property owners are owners of unbuildable half-acre lots. These lots are totally unbuildable for any purpose other than to pay property taxes to the county and that’s about it. Our presence there doesn’t have any effect or change.”
Mitchell was again questioned about his website which offers people the opportunity to pet the tigers for a $500 donation. Mitchell said his property is private, not a zoo, the $500 donation is to discourage people from visiting the location.
He would only encourage large scale publicity, like television producers to visit. Eastley recommended Mitchell take that suggested donation off the website.
Schinhofen made the motion to overturn the RPC. But in a follow-up motion that passed unanimously, he asked to impose the conditions on the permit.
Schinhofen advised Mitchell, “Please remember there are conditions with this conditional use permit. If you violate them it goes away.”