Zoo in Morgan County?

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By Kathryn Schiliro

Managing Editor

You heard right: a zoo is being proposed for Morgan County.

The county Planning Commission, this Thursday, will hear a proposal for both a text amendment allowing zoo facilities in the county as well as a proposal, submitted by Michael Vaden, 1021 River Farm Run, Madison, on Highway 83, south of the Williams Dairy, for a conditional use request allowing him to put a zoo on his 33.5-acre property, which currently houses his private aviary and taxidermy business for exotic animals as well as his residence.

If the county Board of Commissioners OKs the conditional use, the first phase of the zoo could open in late spring or early summer 2014, Vaden said, in an interview.

If successful, a zoo could be an economic boon to the county, as Morgan County Planning & Development staff, in their report, stated that of zoos researched, the average was 1 million visitors annually, about 2,800 visitors per day, with the average ticket price being about $20, not including ancillary purchases. The draw could be significant if advertised in conjunction with the county’s major events and festivals. Further, a zoo would require a fairly large number of employees.

In March, Vaden and his business partner, William Killmer, a landscape architect, who also owns land across River Farm Way, approached Planning & Development staff about turning Vaden’s personal aviary, containing rare and exotic birds – hornbills, cranes, jays, toucans, kookaburras and storks – into a public commercial venture, according to Morgan County Staff Report, presented to the commission at their work session last Friday, June 21. The men’s research led them even further, to considering the establishment of a zoo on Vaden’s property.

“We’re looking to kind of take it to the next level,” Vaden said, in an interview. “We’re looking to do something world class, something the county would be proud of… I think we can make it work.”

There is no precedent for zoos in Morgan County so, before Vaden’s conditional use can be considered, a text amendment for zoo facilities has to be on the books.

The amendment proposal will be a “living document,” the commissioners said, in which changes can be made.

Staff suggested the amendment include that Morgan County Building Officials be present during construction inspections of enclosures by state agencies; that an emergency plan be established with four annual drills; and that a yearly inspection be required before a new business license is issued.

Staff further recommended, in their report, that zoos be allowed as conditional uses in General Commercial (C2) and Agricultural (AG) zones; Vaden’s property is zoned AG.

As far as Vaden’s conditional use application, Vaden owns two River Farm Run properties totaling 33.5 acres; he is trying to buy three more lots. If successful, this land would make the property near 50 acres, all zoned AG.

Vaden is in the process of applying for 501 (c)3 non-profit status, and the project would be funded by a combination of sources, including grants and donations, the staff report states. Commissioners will also consider whether conditional use should be tied to the family; in the case the zoo fails, it could be a burden on the county.

Vaden has worked with the Atlanta, San Diego, Nashville and Audubon zoos and St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park.

Writer Stephanie Johns contributed to this story.

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