ROANOKE COUNTY – A battle between a local wildlife center and neighbors who want it shut down is gaining attention from animal lovers nationwide on social media.
At 7 p.m. Wednesday in Roanoke County, the decision on whether to continue to allow the Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center to operate could come down to the zoning appeals board.
For months now, the Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center, founded by Sabrina and Lucky Garvin, of Roanoke County, has been the subject of controversy among three neighbors including- prominent local business owner Stanley Seymour- who claim the county made an error in giving the center its permit, and that the center is not in compliance with Roanoke County code.
Each year. the Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center cares for more than 1,500 animals that are brought in by the community and local police. The center is located on Coleman Road in Roanoke County.
“We didn't choose to grow this. The community grew us,” Garvin said.
Since the center's inception in 2014 it has grown quickly. The center is open seven days a week and runs as a nonprofit that never charges fees to the public for treating injured or orphaned wildlife.
It’s a calling that Sabrina Garvin said she’s had her entire life. “We are stewards of the environment,” she said.
Garvin said the center’s growth is representative of a community need. But two homeowners who recently purchased property adjacent to the SWVA’s facility have a problem with it.
Documents given to WSLS 10 by Seymour outline complaints made by him and his wife, Jane Seymour, along with two other homeowners Adrian Maver and Blaine Creasy, against the center. In addition to improper zoning by the county, they claim the center does not operate as a veterinary hospital, but instead as a kennel. They claim the center houses animals longer than the amount of time defined for a veterinary hospital. The complaint also states the center does not have the proper permits to build the new flight aviary-for which it has long been raising funds- to house it's large winged birds, such as recovering hawks.
Garvin said the center recently received grant funding to build the aviary, and if it doesn't use the funds by the end of the year, the money will be lost.
“It really hit me in the heart. It really has,” she said.
The legal battle that has been going on for months has cost the nonprofit nearly $10,000, Garvin said, in both attorney fees and rezoning the property from residential to business along with upgrades including those required to meet the access guidelines defined in the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
Garvin said the concern, however, has become more than just financial for her staff, which is made up primarily of female volunteers from local universities.
“Every day, it's frustrating to the point that, occasionally, we have become concerned for our welfare. It's just been stressful to have to drive each day (up the road past the neighbors's homes) and not know whether we are getting stared at, glared at or what's going to be said or done,” Garvin said.
Garvin said she filed restraining orders to prevent the neighbors from contacting them.
“This is something they shouldn't be affected by. I'm a mama bear. I don't like it,” Garvin said.
She said she worries the controversy will cause volunteers to feel unsafe and ultimately not choose to volunteer their time or their internships with the center.
But Garvin's biggest fear is losing the center all together.
“I can't imagine, “Garvin said, holding back tears.
The future of the center is now in the hands of the county, and possibly the courts.