A complaint against a secretive Hendry County primate facility for 3,200 monkeys can proceed through the court system, circuit judge James Sloan has ruled.
In an hour-long hearing, he denied Hendry County’s motion to dismiss a complaint alleging it violated the Sunshine Law by approving a controversial primate facility on the Lee/Hendry border without public notice.
Filed by the nonprofit Animal Legal Defense Fund on behalf of rural residents who live nearby, the complaint asks the 20th Judicial Circuit Court to revoke the facility’s permits for failing to hold mandatory public hearings.
Hendry county attorney Mark Lapp argued the complaint was “wholly unsupported.”
“This falls into the category of routine governmental business that is not subject to the sunshine law,” Lapp said.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Kelsey Eberly countered that approving the project was not routine at all.
“There should have been no doubt that a public meeting was required here…The Sunshine law tells us, ‘Don’t make policy decisions behind closed doors, and don’t delegate important decision-making to staff in private conferences,” Eberly said. “County staffers don’t have free rein to rezone and reclassify properties through bizarre contortions of the zoning laws.”
A primate breeding facility serving the biomedical industry is not agriculture, she said because animal husbandry relates to domestic animals like cattle and poultry. “Macaque monkeys are not domestic animals by any stretch of the imagination,” she said.
In his ruling allowing the case to move forward, Sloan said the plaintiffs “must at some future point demonstrate to the court that the Hendry County zoning code is so vague and ambiguous” that interpreting it becomes a policy-level decision.
Justine Cowan, another of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said the judge did the right thing.
“The county’s interpretation of the Sunshine Law was absurd and too narrow.” Had Sloan allowed it to stand, she said, “it would have set an unfortunate precedent that would (let) a technicality undermine the very law that’s supposed to allow for open government.”
After the hearing, a group of people organized by independent journalist Jane Velez-Mitchell gathered in front of a county building to demonstrate, discuss the ruling and ask officials to respond. Eventually, county administrator Charles Chapman emerged to read a prepared statement.
“The judge’s ruling does not mean that the plaintiffs have won the case or that the county has violated the Sunshine Law. It simply means that the case continues to move forward through the judicial process. We look forward to our day in court,” he said. “Hendry County stands by the rights provided to our property owners contained within the language of our comprehensive plan.”
Alva protester B.J. Gerald said the county was oblivious to all but its financial interests. “One of the reasons companies like this go into a community like Hendry is because they’re economically depressed,” she said.
The county is plagued by one of the state’s highest unemployment rates: 12.3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The U.S. Census reports its per capita income is $16,133 and 26.7 percent of residents live below the poverty line.
“So commissioners will do anything as long as they’re promised a few new jobs,” Gerald said. “It doesn’t matter how badly animals are tortured — it’s not a concern of theirs. It’s all about the money.”
Indeed, the promise of new tax dollars and jobs was undeniably appealing, Gregg Gillman, president of Hendry County’s Economic Development Council, told The News-Press in 2013, predicting it would create about 50 well-paying positions and calling it an “absolutely a great job-creator for us.”
His argument would sound familiar to citizens of Puerto Rico, where the company Bioculture proposed building a facility to house long-tailed macaques with the promise of 50 new jobs for the region, which had a 16 percent unemployment rate.
But after dealing with problems caused by escaped laboratory primates for decades, islanders said no.
The often-diseased animals have become invasive, aggressive pests that destroy crops, outcompete native wildlife and must be trapped and killed by rangers. Activists and residents took their fight all the way to the Puerto Rican supreme court, which finally banned the facility in 2012.
“We have suffered for many years from this plague of wild monkeys which destroy the fruits of our local agricultural industry,” Marcos Irizarry Pagán, mayor of the town of Lajas, told Puerto Rico’s Metro newspaper last year. “They’re dangerous animals that multiply with great ease.”
Original article and video here.