Beaten and abandoned German shepherds and pit bulls, huskies and Australian cattle dogs from shelters across California have for years found sanctuary at Paw Works in Ventura County.
But soon after the nonprofit animal rescue moved into its new 8,000-square-foot shelter in Oxnard last year, those efforts were threatened when county officials told Paw Works it lacked the proper permits and needed to shut down immediately.
Paw Works’ operations director, Brittany Vizcarra, who appealed the notice of violation to the Ventura County Planning Commission, worried there was no place to house most of the animals, given that the county’s cat and dog kennels are operating at or above capacity. Many, she said, would have stayed at the homes of Paw Works’ 30 staffers in the short term.
Vizcarra said her “worst-case scenario of euthanasia” was possible for about 80 dogs and cats, including those recovering from abuse.
“This is my greatest fear, and it’s a possibility because no shelter or organization is accepting animals with behavioral issues,” Vizcarra said Wednesday.
The rehabilitation of these tortured creatures has brought Vizcarra to tears.
“To an outsider these are aggressive dogs, but to me, they’re animals who have made incredible progress,” said Vizcarra, a Ventura native. “They give me kisses, and that makes the work worthwhile.”
Much to her shock, Ventura County officials cleared the way for that work to continue, as the Planning Commission voted 4 to 0 on Thursday morning to allow the shelter to stay open. The action overruled a county staff recommendation to immediately close the facility and remove all 150 dogs and cats from the property.
The motion stunned Vizcarra, who anticipated the “decision would go the other way.”
“I blacked out when they voted in our favor, and my colleague kept grabbing my arm in excitement,” Vizcarra said. “I can’t stop crying, because this allows us to continue our work and save these animals.”
Two notices of violation had been levied against the animal shelter heading into Thursday’s meeting.
The county’s code compliance division charged that Paw Works’ shelter was operating without correct permits and must “[cease] operation of the existing kennel and cattery,” which would include the immediate “removal of animals from the subject site.”
Paw Works previously ran an animal shelter in Camarillo from 2018 until June 2022, when the landlord asked the organization to vacate its 3,000-square-foot facility, Vizcarra said.
The organization searched for a new location for five months until co-founder Chad Atkins found the Oxnard property — the former home of Chase Bros. Dairy — which was more than twice as big. Paw Works set up shop there in November.
The move was one of the final labors of love for Atkins, who in December died unexpectedly of heart failure at age 44.
“This place means so much to us because it was one of his last gifts,” Vizcarra said.
Vizcarra acknowledged Paw Works did not file for the correct permits to operate a pet sanctuary. She also said she “naively and incorrectly” thought a $5,000 conditional use permit Paw Works had previously secured with the city of Camarillo would transfer to the new Oxnard property.
After receiving a complaint in December, a Ventura County code compliance inspector visited the site the following month and confirmed Paw Works was operating without a proper permit. On March 2, a code compliance officer issued a notice of violation that called for the facility to close immediately.
Paw Works appealed the violation but could not continue facility upgrades, which consisted of roughly $300,000 worth of work, Vizcarra said.
In a statement Wednesday, Ventura County’s Planning Division said a conditional use permit “is required prior to the initiation of particular uses.”
Applications for such permits are subject to a California Environmental Quality Act and site plan review, public hearings and various additional steps before they are granted.
“None of these steps have been taken regarding the Paw Works project,” the statement continued.
Vizcarra said that Paw Works, which leased the property from Western Ag Group, has been trying to apply for a conditional use permit but has been hamstrung by the county.
She said county officials told her they “won’t grant a permit” until the land on which Paw Works sits is completely cleared of oil and gas structures.
Paw Works is on the far end of a 159.2-acre site that is exclusively zoned for agricultural uses, broken up into two parcels that were previously operating under a special use permit that allowed oil and gas facilities for drilling and extraction.
Paw Works’ territory is cleared of such buildings and equipment, but the other section is not.
“We don’t have anything to do with that other piece of land, and the county is saying because it’s one giant property, we can’t do anything until that’s clear,” Vizcarra said.
About 95% of barrels, drums and equipment have been removed from the second parcel, attorney Neal Maguire, representing Western Ag Group, said at Thursday’s meeting. Only one tank, which has been taken over by swallows, remains.
The tank’s removal would take only two weeks, but Western Ag Group wanted to wait until the end of the birds’ nesting season, which concludes in September, Maguire said.
Dave Ward, county planning commissioner, said his department would consider reviewing a permit only after Paw Works had vacated the land and Western Ag Group cleared both parcels.
“We do not process a permit while an operation is in effect,” Ward said at Thursday’s meeting.
County Commissioner Margaret Kestly proposed a compromise — a motion acknowledging that county staff properly served the notices of violation and that Paw Works lacked correct permits, but allowing the shelter to remain open under a compliance agreement that it would follow all steps toward applying for a conditional use permit.
“We are talking about animals that have nowhere to go,” Kestly said. “And in that case, I do feel strongly that we have an obligation or responsibility to at least find the exemption and a workaround.”
Despite its underdog status, Paw Works took one giant advantage into Thursday’s hearing: public perception.
In an emotional plea on social media, Vizcarra called on Paw Works advocates to flood the inboxes of the county code compliance officer and planning commission clerk.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 662 people had sent emails of support. Ward said 232 more comments were received after the posting of the board agenda, with the “vast majority of those in support” of Paw Works.
Almost all the emails contained a form message Vizcarra wrote. That read, in part, “Paw Works provides critical support to Ventura County and has saved 14,000 animals since they were founded. Please allow them to continue their good work at their current location and don’t shut them down.”