So far, when it comes to building a new Guilford County Animal Shelter, the discussions about the size, cost, location and all other aspects of the shelter have been between Guilford County commissioners, staff and county consultants.

However, there’s a growing chorus of loud new voices chiming in on the project: The area’s large community of animal welfare advocates is now speaking up, asking questions and making its own wishes for the proposed new facility known.

At the Guilford County Animal Services Advisory Board meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 7, speakers from the floor, as well as Animal Services board members, had a lot of thoughts on the shelter and its location, practices and policies. And on Monday, Sept. 12, at a Halting Overpopulation and Preventing Euthanasia (HOPE) meeting at the Benjamin Branch of the Greensboro Public Library, animal lovers and representatives of area animal rescue and welfare organizations also expressed their thoughts on the new shelter. That group meets about once a month and those meetings include a good cross-section of animal advocates in Guilford County.

Currently, the 900-pound question in the room is whether or not the Greensboro City Council is going to approve a rezoning request from Guilford County – something that’s needed for the county to build a shelter on the county-owned site next to the Guilford County Agricultural Center on the 3300 block of Burlington Road in Greensboro. The majority of county commissioners want to see the shelter built at that location. However, the District 1 and District 2 city councilmembers who represent that section of east Greensboro are avidly opposed to putting the shelter there, and they have some support from other members of the City Council – though other council members are either for it or haven’t made up their minds.

But location is only one question regarding the shelter. Nearly all the other issues – such as the shelter’s size, design, cost, policies, non-profit affiliations and more – are also up in the air.

Guilford County Commissioner Justin Conrad, the chairman of the county’s newly formed Animal Services board, said he appreciates the free-flowing input that’s now coming in from animal lovers.

Conrad said he has started seeing a lot of emails regarding the shelter, and he’s also hearing from those who come to Animal Services meetings to offer input as speakers from the floor. Conrad said that, when he served on the Guilford County Board of Public Health for six years, and chaired it for two of those years, there was only one person who ever came to speak from the floor and that person only spoke occasionally. However, at the last Guilford County Animal Services board meeting, over 30 people came to watch the proceedings and many of those spoke up on various issues. At the September committee meeting, Conrad had to add time at the end of the meeting for speakers from the floor since so many people wanted to voice their views.

Conrad said he thinks the growing input from multiple sources is a good thing and he added that Guilford County can benefit from that as it moves forward with the shelter process.

“In this area, there’s a group of very engaged volunteers and others who care deeply about the animals,” Conrad said. “The people who are passionate about animals are very passionate – and that’s a good thing. I appreciate that.”

He said he always welcomes participation by the community and at the Animal Services board meeting earlier this month he pointed out to the board members and the audience that there will be plenty of time for people to submit their ideas.

“I wanted to make sure that people understood how early in the process we are,” Conrad said this week. “We are very, very, very early in this process.”

Conrad said a lot of things are currently up in the air because many previous staff conversations on the shelter and its policies took place with former Animal Services Director Logan Rustan at the center of the process. Rustan left Guilford County government abruptly in May, just a few months after being named director of Animal Services. In July, the county hired Animal Services Director Drew Brinkley. Brinkley was the operations manager for the Orange County Animal Shelter before accepting the job with Guilford County.

Conrad said Brinkley clearly has his own thoughts on the new shelter project. He said he expects Brinkley’s Orange County background to show itself in the new Animal Shelter’s policies and practices.

Guilford County Deputy Manager Clarence Grier, who’s overseeing the new shelter initiative, also worked for Orange County before he took the job in Guilford County, and Grier has praised how the shelter in that county was run.

Conrad said, “I think you are going to see different programs in the new shelter – maybe some that come specifically from Orange County, which has a shelter that is really held in high regard.”

Grier said he’s also starting to hear more from interested citizens about what they’d like to see include in the new shelter plans.

“They are starting to become more engaged,” Grier said.

There are many questions the commissioners, county staff, shelter workers and animal groups need to address. What type of services should be provided at the new shelter? How much should the county spend to build it? What policies should guide it once it is built? How long will it take to build? Should it be a bare bones operation or one that ties in with a large number of secondary animal services? Area animal advocates have a great deal to say about these and other topics related to the proposed shelter.

Bev Levine, who serves on the county’s Animal Services board and runs HOPE, said that county citizens understand the decisions ultimately lie with county officials, but she added that they hope their ideas and input can help make the new shelter a success.

She said one overarching idea that seems to have a good deal of support among animal advocates is for the shelter and the surrounding area to be more than a typical shelter and instead also be a focal point of the community where rescue groups work and multiple animal services are provided.

Animal Services board member Brenda Frizzell brought up the village concept at the September meeting, and others on the Animal Service board and in the community at large said they like the idea, though it could add to the cost of a new shelter.

Levine said this week that the “village” concept is big in some other counties that have had success with that model. She said there could be, for instance, a feral cats program set up near the shelter, along with other nonprofit initiatives and, say, a dog park or other animal related attractions that draw pet owners to the site. It could also encourage citizens who use those services to help out at the shelter by walking animals, cleaning cages or provide help in other ways.

She also said the new shelter could be used to offer classes on pet-related issues and to bring down the county’s population of stray animals.

“They could have a spay and neuter clinic,” Levine said, “especially if it’s going to be in east Greensboro, which is an area where they say that service is really needed.”

Levine also said one of the things many animal advocates like about the Ag Center location is that Guilford County owns a lot of land at that spot – about 33 acres. She said that, if the county built the shelter on that site, there would be a good deal of room would to add these types of connected services.

She said that, on all of these topics, she and other animal advocates hope Guilford County pays a lot of attention to what is and isn’t working in other places.

“There are some really good shelters and we should learn from them,” she said.

In addition to the county’s operating procedures, one big issue that is now coming up more and more is the question of shelter size. The current shelter at 4525 W. Wendover Ave. can hold over 500 animals. However, county staff has said the new shelter may be built with less capacity than the existing shelter. Some animal advocates don’t want to see a reduction in shelter capacity, but county staff say that good policies and a commitment to working closely with area rescue groups can keep the size requirement down.

Levine said that county policy will affect the needed size.

“They plan to have the animals moving more quickly,” she said.

Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Director Robert McNiece said of the size of the proposed shelter, “A lot of it is driven by policy.”

For instance, he said, the county’s new policy to adopt out Rottweilers and pit bulls means it will take more space to house those animals since they will not simply be euthanized.

The cost of the new shelter is up in the air at this point as well. Guilford County is estimating roughly $8 million for the project, but some have suggested it could be as high at $10 million, while others say the county can build it for less than $8 million.

Guilford County staff don’t, at this point, don’t want to even estimate how long it will take. However, a good rule of thumb for an animal shelter on land that doesn’t provide a large number of obstacles is that it should take about one year from the naming of a contractor to the time the structure is complete.

Grier said Guilford County is currently looking at multiple sites in addition to the Ag Center location.

Levine said that animal advocates seem to be warming up to the Ag Center site and she added that the area is expected to see more activity in the future, something that would be a good thing for the shelter.

“It’s not going to be as rural as it is now – it has the potential to be a high-traffic area,” she said of the Burlington Road site.

Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips said recently that the old site – the county’s current backup plan should the city say no to the Burlington Road site rezoning request – has become less and less appealing in recent months. Heavy traffic there is a big concern, the land is uneven, and the county would have to do something with the hundreds of animals held at the shelter during the construction process if it builds the next shelter on the site of the current one.

Phillips also said he doesn’t have any new information on whether the Greensboro City Council will approve the county’s request.

In order to help in that regard, Guilford County has commissioned artist’s renderings.

Conrad said he thinks that going ahead and doing some renderings are a good idea.

“It might help assuage some of fears over the project,” he said.

Another thing that some animal rights advocates say they would like to see is a second bare-bones “satellite” shelter site closer to the High Point area. That idea has been discussed briefly in county meetings. If the proposed new shelter ends up on Burlington Road, the county may keep a satellite drop-off point at the current West Wendover location but that’s just one of many things now under discussion.

Another question that remains unanswered is how long it will take to build a shelter. The county still doesn’t have site and some animal lovers are getting antsy, since the project has been repeatedly on the front burner for about two years now.

There’s due diligence and design and permitting, followed by construction and inspection and plenty of other steps in between.

“That’s a good question,” Conrad said of how long it will take to get a new shelter up and open.

“Zoning is the very beginning of it,” he added.

Conrad pointed to a proposed new Guilford County Emergency Services maintenance facility as one example of a county project that seems to take forever. That has been a priority for the Board of Commissioners for nearly 15 years. That one still hasn’t gotten off the ground.

Conrad said that says something about the time span for major projects in Guilford County, but he added that he’s optimistic the new shelter won’t take as long as that Emergency Services project has.