Whitehouse couple wrestles with city over animals

SMITH COUNTY (TYLER MORNING TELEGRAPH) - A struggle deepened in recent weeks between the city of Whitehouse and a couple who owns and operates its property as an animal rescue.

Within the last month, the Whitehouse Marshal's Office executed two search warrants at the Wild Rose Rescue Ranch on Willingham Road, which is owned by Bob and Georganne Lenham, after receiving continuous complaints.
On Sept. 26, the Marshal's Office executed a search warrant signed by Smith County Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace Judge James Meredith.

There were 31 dogs impounded as a result of the warrant; four dogs were identified by the residence owner as personal dogs and left with the owner; two dogs were identified by the residence owner as being unable to relocate because of health issues; and one dog was uncatchable by Animal Control, Assistant City Manager Kevin Huckabee said.

The Lenhams also were issued citations for excessive dogs, livestock regulations and keeping of wild animals.

Additionally, Mrs. Lenham also was warned that if she recovered the dogs and brought them back, they could possibly be impounded again, Huckabee said.

On Oct. 3, Huckabee said the Whitehouse Marshal's Office received several complaints that the Lenhams recovered their dogs, and several attempts were made to contact the Lenhams.

"I made personal and phone attempts," Huckabee said. "The Lenhams never responded to the gate, nor would they return my phone calls. The Whitehouse city attorney did speak with Mrs. Lenham and urged them to contact me about the dogs."

But he said concerned residents continued to complain daily about the safety of their children and the continuous barking.

On Tuesday, the Lenhams were warned that Whitehouse continued to receive complaints and that if the dogs stayed on the property there would be another search warrant executed, he wrote in an email. The Marshal's Office executed another warrant the next morning.

Huckabee said a young gentleman there, who is from England and plans to be a veterinarian, told authorities that the couple left and took all the dogs with them.

Authorities found four dogs, along with other animals, and citations were issued for keeping a wild deer in a fenced area and horses being quartered within 100 feet of neighboring residences, Huckabee said.

Mrs. Lenham said by phone Thursday night that the ranch is not in city limits, and she has records to prove it. But Huckabee contends that records from the Smith County Appraisal District and the City of Whitehouse official maps and annexation ordinances show that their property is and has been in the city limits of Whitehouse. He said the Lenhams have not produced records for the city that show anything different.

Mrs. Lenham also said she believes her ranch has been singled out, and that the city is "terrorizing" them.

"They target our animals, and now they're saying our horses are too close to the fence," she said.

As far as the deer, she said, "All we're doing is feeding the one that's on our property. Probably in three weeks, we won't be seeing him again."

Additionally, Mrs. Lenham claims that her neighbors are being solicited to see if her dogs are bothering them. She said she currently has the four dogs, and others were given to different rescue groups.

"The corruption has got to stop. It's not right," she said.

The two warrants mark the latest development in the struggle between the city and the ranch.

In January 2011, the ranch was denied a wildlife rehabilitation permit renewal by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

The next month, Whitehouse city council members unanimously approved an animal ordinance that affected the Lenhams.

According to the ordinance, households may not own or keep more than four dogs or four cats on private property within city limits.

The ordinance also states it is unlawful for owners to keep an animal in a way that poses a danger to public health or annoys an adjoining neighbor "by causing or allowing the accumulation of animal wastes."

When the ordinance was adopted, the Lenhams had about 28 dogs, 220 rabbits and about five horses, Huckabee said.

In March 2011, the ranch filed a civil suit against Whitehouse, claiming that its animal ordinance is unconstitutional.

Randy Turner, co-counsel for the Lenhams at the time, has said the couple was trying hard to adopt out dogs, and Mrs. Lenham's goal was not "just to have an ordinance declared unconstitutional (but) to preserve and protect her beloved animals."

Smith County 7th Judicial District Court Judge Kerry L. Russell dismissed the case during a hearing in August 2011, saying the court does not have jurisdiction to rule on the issue.

Huckabee said the city then tried to mediate with the Lenhams and asked if it could work with them to reduce the numbers of dogs, month by month.

"We had an agreement to do this over a six-month period, but after we left mediation the Lenhams backed out of the agreement and filed for appeal of Judge Russell's decision through the 12th Court of Appeals in Dallas," he said. About two months ago, Judge Russell's decision was upheld by the Court of Appeals.

While the appeal was pending, Huckabee said residents still complained about issues at the Lenhams.

After trying several attempts to speak to the Lenhams and sending a letter Sept. 17 asking them to reduce the number of dogs and informing them of possible violations, a search warrant was the only way they could get on the property to look into residents' complaints, he said.

Huckabee said the dogs have been the biggest concern, but, as of Thursday morning, they were down to four, and he has received numerous "thank yous" from residents.

No civil litigation is pending. However, the Lenhams currently have 17 pending excessive animal cases with the Whitehouse Municipal Court. Those offenses are class C misdemeanors.

"We're just concerned about all of our citizens involved," Huckabee said. "We're concerned about the safety of those who have that many dogs and everyone involved in this. We're going to continue to do everything we can to work them and the neighbors to resolve the issues."


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