Zoning crackdown puts animal rescue operations at risk of closure

A North Carolina woman’s animal sanctuary is in danger of closing after local zoning officials say she can no longer host fundraising and volunteer events on her property.

Since mid-2021, Kimberly Dunkel has operated the nonprofit Fairytale Farm Animal Sanctuary on the four-acre property in Winston-Salem where she lives with her husband and two children. The sanctuary takes in old, injured and abandoned animals, often from nearby farms, that would otherwise be euthanized.

The sanctuary started when a friend asked if Dunkel would take in a rabbit she couldn’t care for. With a little research, Dunkel discovered that local operations had not been performed on disabled or neglected animals that were not dogs or cats.

He adopted the rabbit and soon adopted more animals to go elsewhere. Today, his sanctuary cares for sheep, rabbits, two young donkeys, ducks, a turkey, goats (four of which use wheelchairs or prosthetic limbs) and a former herding dog who has lost his hearing and his work.

The growing operation soon outgrew Dunkel and her husband’s ability to finance themselves. So they started hosting fundraising events that doubled as opportunities for people to spend time with animals.

These included hay rides, volunteer day trips and even “sleep with the sheep” events where people come and camp with the sheep.

“If you’re in a more urban area, you’re not usually sleeping with animals next to you,” she says. “People see it as something different and something more connected to nature.”

While the community took to these events, they soon proved a problem with the city government.

The problem began in November 2022 when Dunkel received a visit from animal control officers responding to an anonymous complaint. Dunkel says they haven’t even found a problem on the farm as [asked?] If only she could take the other rescued animals they are trying to keep.

But in January a city department inspection from zoning enforcement officers from Winston-Salem’s Planning and Development Services Department began. In in-person conversations and follow-up emails, department staff informed Dunkel that an animal sanctuary was not permitted on his residentially zoned property and would have to cease operations.

This surprised Dunkel. Before buying the property, he confirmed with the city that he would be allowed to keep animals there. He even registered it as a farm with the US Department of Agriculture to take advantage of state laws protecting the right to farm.

The planning department’s directive that he close the sanctuary has caused confusion between Dunkel and the city. The former kept asking what he was told he couldn’t do on his property while the latter gave shifting or vague explanations.

In a Jan. 20 email, a code enforcement officer told Dunkel that he “cannot operate/operate an animal rescue/sanctuary, conduct events such as sip & see, camping/glamping, etc.”

Dunkel took that to mean he would not be allowed to keep animals on his property, period. Shortly thereafter, he started an online petition to try to save his sanctuary.

But she says the town’s narrative began to change as her story surfaced in the local press. “Every time there’s a news interview, we learn something new,” she says.

In follow-up emails sent in early February, the director of the planning department, Chris Murphy, told Dunkel that she was allowed to keep animals on her property, but events and fundraisers would have to stop. Events tied to animal sanctuaries were considered commercial activities that were not allowed in residential areas, he said.

In those emails, Murphy acknowledged that the line between authorized private gatherings and events connected to the sanctuary was blurred.

“Zoning is multi-layered and concise. Yes, you can camp out on your own property. Your friends can come over and you can enjoy each other’s company—have a cookout, a bonfire, a sleepover, a dinner party.” Murphy wrote.

But, he said, while a private sleepover was allowed, things like his “Sleep with the Sheep” event affiliated with the animal sanctuary were not. Murphy also cautioned her against trying to redefine the forbidden events associated with her sanctuary into permissible, private events held for friends.

“Simply saying ‘we’re going to start these events for our “friends”‘ isn’t enough to overcome the fact that the events will really be in favor of and for animal rescue operations,” he wrote.

Murphy said Dunkel could apply to rezone his property to a commercial zone, but it was unlikely that request would be approved. His area was zoned residential and simply changing a property to a commercial zone would probably be considered illegal “spot zoning”.

Dunkel says that without the ability to hold events, his animal sanctuary suffers financially.

Feed, hay, vet bills, animal supplies and everything needed for the animals on the fairytale farm are expensive. Fundraising events bring in about 90 percent of the sanctuary’s revenue. Having off-site events can create some gaps, but they will also be much less of a draw without the animals.

Ultimately, Dunkel said the financial loss of losing on-site events is not impossible to overcome. But the sanctuary is losing more than just money. A large part of their mission was interacting with guests and volunteers and caring for the animals.

“It wasn’t just an animal rescue,” Dunkel said. “That was the most important part. A very close second was the human element.”

He tells the story of a time the farm hosted a day visit from an organization that cares for adults with disabilities.

As that trip was ending, Dunkel recalled that one visitor said his favorite part was “seeing all these animals because they’re different but they still find a way to be happy.”

Losing the ability to hold events and create moments like this, she says, would be a real loss.

The fairytale farm has yet to be officially cited by the city. A code enforcement officer said because The Department’s standard practice is to correct violations before issuing any citations or fines. But if the fairytale farm doesn’t stop hosting events or continues to violate zoning codes, it could risk a $100 per day fine.

Dunkel said he will continue to explore his legal options for allowing events on his property. He has also considered moving the operation to another property, but they are not in a financial position to do so at this time.

“We will continue to fight the city as long as possible,” he said. “We continue to fight it to try and change.”