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A majority of the Riverhead Town Board signaled that they will vote in favor of new town code to restrict the sale of commercially bred dogs, cats and rabbits in pet stores in the town’s borders. However, the new law’s passage will likely prompt legal challenges from the stores they hope to regulate.

Councilman Ken Rothwell — who proposed the legislation in July — Councilman Frank Beyrodt and Councilwoman Catherine Kent told RiverheadLOCAL they will vote yes on the resolution on the agenda for tomorrow’s town board meeting, making it law. 

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar and Councilman Tim Hubbard did not return calls seeking comment before this article was published. 

The proposed code requires that stores offering dogs, cats and rabbits for sale prove the animals came from animal shelters, animal control agencies, humane societies or nonprofit rescue groups registered with the state. Besides an amendment to the code to add rabbits, the bill remains unchanged from when it was introduced by Rothwell during a July 29 work session.

The new law would not affect adoption procedures at local animal shelters, nor would it prevent individuals from dealing directly with breeders.

“If a business is predicated upon a model of exploiting animals, then it’s a bad business model and it needs to go away,” Kent said.

“I’ve read through all of the letters, the correspondence and heard all of the testimony,” Beyrodt said. “I am an animal lover myself and being a businessman, I feel for the people who have to change their business model to accommodate the new resolution. However, I think this is a more important issue about the safety and welfare of the animals at this point.”

The town board heard from people both for and against the law during a public hearing Sept. 8.  The intention of the law is to cut off stores from “horrific” and “inhumane” commercial breeding facilities, often called puppy mills, where female dogs are overbred, and often killed or abandoned after they are unable to breed, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Puppies who are bred in mills often suffer with health issues after they leave the facilities.

There are an estimated 10,000 puppy mills in operation in the United States; approximately 500,000 dogs are kept solely for breeding purposes in the mills and 2.6 million milled puppies are sold each year, according to the Humane Society.

Among those against the law was David Schwartz, a government relations lawyer representing People United to Protect Pet Integrity, or “P.U.P.P.I,” a New York-based organization backed by pet dealers opposed to restrictions on the sales of dogs bred at so-called puppy mills. He and others argued the process of obtaining dogs was already heavily regulated and the law would put pet stores out of business. 

The law would affect two pet stores within the Town of Riverhead that sell commercially bred dogs, The Puppy Experience in Aquebogue and the Sportsman’s Kennel in Manorville. The Puppy Experience is part of the P.U.P.P.I organization.

Schwartz, also a lobbyist for Gotham Government Relations & Communications, said the town will be inviting a lawsuit if the code change is passed. A memo from Schwartz to the town claims the proposed change violates state law that says new municipal laws cannot “essentially result in the banning of all sales of dogs or cats raised and maintained in a healthy and safe manner.” Since the state law in this case supersedes the local law, the new code would be deemed invalid, the memo argues.

The memo also states the new law “destroys the commercial breeding of cats and dogs, interferes with the viability of the Pet shops themselves as well as their leasehold interests in their premises without just compensation and in violation of State Law.”

“This is a ridiculous law in which the town is going to vote to do it based on a couple of radicals threatening people on social media, including the board members of the town — which I think is really the breakdown of democracy at the local level when you know that this law is so inherently violates state law and is so illogical to start,” Schwartz said in a call with RiverheadLOCAL.

Town Attorney Robert Kozakiewicz said the attorney’s office remains confident of the code’s legality. 

The day after the code changes were introduced in a work session, emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Law show Aguiar attempted to block the legislation from appearing on the agenda at the next town board meeting. She directed Deputy Supervisor Devon Higgins to not include the resolution on the town’s system, MinuteTraq. 

“I am getting huge opposition. I knew we needed to rethink this but Rothwell was insisting, it should be tabled. We need to rethink this,” she wrote in an email to Higgins two days after the legislation was discussed at the work session.

That Monday, she asked Town Clerk Diane Wilhelm to not include the legislation in the preliminary agenda before she sent the town board an opposition memo from “P.U.P.P.I.”, and asked the board to “reconsider to not move this forward and become more informed of the long-range ramifications of his legislation.”

Aguiar condemned puppy mills in a guest column on RiverheadLOCAL the next week, in which she wrote “No one in our society should ever condone abuse of animals and people.” She described comments on Facebook against her as a political attack.

In an interview with Newsday, Aguiar said the town has received requests to grandfather, or exempt “certain people licensed by the state” from the law.

A bill currently pending in the N.Y. State Legislature would completely ban the sale of dogs, cats and rabbits by retail pet shops. The bill passed with a supermajority in the State Senate in May, but remains in committee in the State Assembly. 

The proposed code provides fines from a $250 minimum for the first violation to a $2,500 maximum for a third or subsequent violation, as well as imprisonment of up to 30 days. Pet store operators would have up to 90 days to comply with the new code after its effective date.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.