GROTON -- Deciding that more information was needed before they could make a final determination, the Zoning Board of Appeals chose to continue a public hearing on the issue of opening a kennel in a residential complex.

In doing so, the ZBA found that Pepperell resident Jillian O'Brien's plan to establish a dogcare business in an empty building at the 44-unit Residential Gardens condominium complex on Main Street constituted a "substantial" change in operations there.

Whether the proposed facility constituted a substantial or insubstantial change in the conditions of a comprehensive permit awarded to the Residential Gardens complex some years ago was the main question upon which the board's decision turned.

Formerly the site of the Anytime Fitness center, the standalone building had been vacant for for months until O'Brien, who currently operates her JPO Dogs canine care business from a home office, expressed interest in opening a permanent center there.

Appearing before the board June 5, O'Brien estimated that in full operation, her new business would care for an average of 45 dogs each day. The dogs would be kept in separate crates while indoors but be taken outside for exercise on a rotating schedule.

Outside, she planned to enclose an area 45 feet by 90 feet as an exercise yard, part of which would encompass a number of parking spaces.

But O'Brien's plans were opposed by a number of her potential neighbors, residents of condominiums in the nearby Residential Gardens.

In a letter sent by 22 residents protesting O'Brien's plans, concerns cited including the noise of dogs barking, odors, the disposal of animal waste, proliferation of insects such as ticks, child safety and impact on property values.

Residents claimed that the proposed dogcare facility would present "a significant negative impact" on their quality of life.

Many of those residents attended the June 5 public hearing and filled the second floor meeting room at Town Hall where the meeting was held.

"I'm a dog person who is also pro-economic development in town so I'm coming to this with an open mind," said abutter Ray Capes who, nevertheless, had many questions about the dogcare business that he feared could impact his quality of life.

The ZBA explained that the purpose of the hearing was not to conduct a detailed site plan review of the proposed business but only to determine if the change in use for the building formed a substantial or insubstantial alteration in the conditions of the original comprehensive permit. Members referred to the opinion of the town's legal counsel.

In a letter to the board, counsel confirmed the need for a finding of substantial change or not while also noting that in a recent vote of town meeting, dog kennels were permitted by right under Groton's agricultural bylaw.

"I don't remember dogs being covered in that bylaw," commented resident Earl Russell.

To which town planner Michelle Collette explained that it did but that the bylaw did not automatically mean that a dogcare business had to be approved. The bylaw included guidelines for acceptance including minimum acreage.

In defense of O'Brien, building owner George Basbanes rose to say that no one ever complained of noise coming from Anytime Fitness when it was the tenant even though that business was open 24 hours a day.

Furthermore, said Basbanes, the building was not close to abutters and that in any case, whatever changes were being proposed did not add up to the definition of substantial.

"I think she will be a fine tenant," said Basbanes of O'Brien. "Her business will be a benefit to the town."

Basbanes' comments were loudly challenged by residents in attendance who had to be quieted by ZBA chairman Mark Mulligan.

"My opinion is that the change is substantial," said board member Bruce Easom at that point.

Supported by other members who cited questions of runoff from the outdoor dog pen and exactly where the dog enclosure would be located, the board voted to determine that the proposed change of use did indeed constitute a substantial departure from the conditions of the comprehensive permit.

From there, the board listed all areas that members needed more information on before meeting again on the issue. They included parking, lighting, traffic flow, fencing, stormwater runoff and various health concerns. 

Because many of the items in question would need review by the Planning Board and the Board of Health, time was given to the applicant to meet with those groups and to prepare a more formal presentation before the public hearing continued on July 9.