Danny's Farm Owners Not Giving Up on Goal of Helping Autistic Kids

Cathy Gott said the zoning issue that forced Danny's Farm to move to the Almansor Center in South Pasadena will mean they can still help local autistic kids. They are also not ruling out a move back to Altadena

By Justin Chapman, Altadena Patch, 1/12/2011

Although Cathy and Jim Gott are very disappointed that they had to close down their beloved petting zoo and activity center for autistic children this week because of a violation of an L.A. County zoning code, Cathy said this will not stop their mission to serve children with special needs, as well as employ adults with special needs.
The Almansor Center in South Pasadena has already opened its doors to the Gotts' mission by creating a smaller scale of Danny's Farm in terms of what animals will be available there, including bunnies, guinea pigs and even some domestic animals such as cats.
"We're trying to be positive in that at least we have a place to go," said Cathy. "We continue to serve children; it's just at Almansor now.  Thank God we can keep our special needs staff. We're a family, we can stay together, and we are still fulfilling our mission by employing adults with mental problems."
The Gotts have been working over the last few weeks to make the transition as their Altadena farm was being shut down.  The closure of the property was originally reported on Sunday on the Altadenablog.
Gott said that although the animals will be smaller, the location benefits them in terms of the clients they can serve. They can reach out to more children in their goal to address autism.
Even though their Altadena property is a licensed day-care facility and licensed to serve children with autism, the property was never zoned to host the number of animals it had, and likely never will be, according to county officials.
"Danny's Farm, which included a petting zoo, a day care and an activity center, it was not a use that was permitted by the underlying permit, the nonconforming review," said Oscar Gomez, the Supervising Regional Planner with the county Department of Regional Planning. "It was also not listed as permitted by the zone of the property. The zoning is R-1, which is low-density, single-family residential. So you can see how you wouldn't want a petting zoo right next to your backyard."
Although the nonconforming use permit did not allow any activity except boarding horses in stables and giving horseback riding lessons, Gomez said the county worked with the Gotts for a long time to help them find a more suitable place.
And though the Gotts would love to remain in Altadena, they are fully aware that they cannot operate Danny's Farm, which is named after their autistic son, at its original location.
"Regardless of how much money or power or clout or anything of the sort, that property is a nonconforming use site (NCR)," said Cathy. "It can never be altered, and it is only zoned for private equestrian boarding stables and horse riding lessons, and that's it. I'm a fighter. I would get the community together in a heartbeat to save that site for Danny's Farm, but there's nothing to fight for. We have wonderful donors and community support, as well as support from the county and the Department of Disability.  Everyone loves what we were doing, we just can't do it at that spot."
She added that they never wanted to move because they love that spot, and that they've tried every available option, even meeting with Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who she said has been very supportive of their mission since the beginning, almost three years ago.
"Antonovich is very supportive in what we do with our mission," said Cathy. "I'm not angry at the county. They supported us from the beginning; they gave us money and came out on our opening day. They've been wonderful."
So why was Danny's Farm allowed to operate for nearly three years if they were violating a zoning code? Apparently the county was unaware of the violation until a neighbor filed several complaints.
The Gotts then received a cease-and-desist letter last month giving them 30 days to vacate the property. All of the animals that could not be transferred to the Almansor Center have found safe homes where the Gotts can visit them. They hope someday to bring them back to another Altadena location.
"It's just amazing how this has brought such a beautiful part of our community together," said Cathy. "We'd love to someday be in Altadena. There are some Altadena properties that are agriculture and commercial mixed-use sites, but they're occupied by other people. I'm happy to meet with anyone to talk about any kind of possibilities. I'm very open-minded, but right now I didn't have any other choice. We have nowhere else to go in Altadena at the moment." 
The Gotts know the man who filed the complaints and even spoke with him, but they are not angry at him because they now know they were not in compliance.
"I want to do it by the books regardless if someone complains or not," said Cathy. "This was built from our hearts. The Altadena Stables totally embraced us and were very accepting of the population we served and our employees. It's been very positive, and although it's changing, we're going to continue. We're not going to let this stop us. We just have to do it correctly without violating codes."