Koi controversy: A day after robbery, pet store told it’s not properly licensed

  • Koi in Catherine and Steven Knowles’ private pond. The Knowles own New England Koi and Pond Supplies, which is located at their home off Sorbi Circle in South Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Harper Laino, a volunteer with New England Koi and Pond Supplies in South Hadley, with koi in Catherine and Steven Knowles pond. The Knowles co-own the business which is located at their home off Sorbi Circle in South Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Harper Laino, a volunteer with New England Koi and Pond Supplies in South Hadley, with koi in Catherine and Steven Knowles’ pond. The Knowles co-own the business which is located at their home off Sorbi Circle in South Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Koi for sale in one of the tanks at New England Koi and Pond Supplies in South Hadley, owned by Catherine and Steven Knowles. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Harper Laino, a volunteer with New England Koi and Pond Supplies in South Hadley, with koi in Catherine and Steven Knowles’ pond. The Knowles co-own the business, which is located at their home off Sorbi Circle in South Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steven and Catherine Knowles in front of the building that was broken into on their property off Sorbi Circle in South Hadley. The two co-own New England Koi and Pond Supplies which is located at their home. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Catherine and Steven Knowles, co-owners of New England Koi and Pond Supplies, which is located at their home off Sorbi Circle in South Hadley, stand by a tank. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The building which was broken into on Catherine and Steven Knowles’ property off Sorbi Circle in South Hadley. The two co-own New England Koi and Pond Supplies which is located at their home. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/31/2020 12:25:19 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Owners of New England Koi pet store are challenging a notice issued to them by the town’s building commissioner on Tuesday stating their business is not properly licensed to operate at its current location.

Co-owner Catherine Knowles said that she and her husband Steven, the store’s other co-owner, have operated their business from its 82 Sorbi Circle location for seven years and had not experienced any licensure issues during that period. According to Knowles, the state licensed the business to sell fish, outdoor water displays and other materials associated with the care and keeping of fish.

But South Hadley Building Commissioner Dave Gardner said that the business has not been operating under any town licensure and does not qualify to operate as a retail business under a town zoning ordinance. The business must be located on a lot of at least 5 acres to operate in the residential area, Gardner said, and New England Koi takes up less than 1,500 square feet.

No cease-and-desist order has been issued at this point, Gardner said, but he met with the owners on Tuesday to tell them that they could not operate their business at its current location and to discuss a reasonable timeframe for ceasing operations. Gardner said that he suggested 30 days “to give them time to come to terms with the situation.”

Knowles said that she was also told that an office space referred to as a “tea house” style shed violated zoning ordinance and would need to be moved. Gardner said that the ordinance requires structures such as the shed to sit at least 10 feet from the abutting property, and the shed is only 1 foot from the next property line. Residents can possibly petition for an exception to that ordinance in their area, Gardner said.

Gardner said he does not know all details of the state license, but that the state “certainly doesn’t grant a license to operate business in a community where the business is not allowed to operate.”

 But Knowles disputes this claim, and she and her husband are circulating a petition to keep New England Koi open and allow the shed, which serves as an office space and stores some supplies, to remain in place. The petition had more than 80 signatures Wednesday afternoon.

The business is located in an agricultural zone, which Knowles argues may provide an exception to Gardner’s notice, but Gardner says this is a “misconception.” Knowles plans to petition to the Planning Board to allow the business to remain in place.

The notice was issued a day after someone broke into the business, Knowles said. On Monday, Knowles entered the store to find that someone had stolen fish and supplies and that dead fish were strewn across the floor as a result of the thief not properly closing the tanks. The store lost $847 in fish and merchandise in the robbery, according to Knowles.

South Hadley Police could not be reached for further details on the break-in.

“It was very upsetting after a malicious robbery the night before,” Knowles said of the notice. “I’m going to lose my livelihood here. Yes, we sell online, but close to 80% of the sales that we do here come from the live fish.”

Knowles also questioned why the business is only being notified of an issue after seven years in operation. Gardner said that he cannot speak for past building commissioners, but that he only recently became aware of the zoning issue he said exists at New England Koi.

Harper Laino, a New England Koi customer turned volunteer, said that the news came as a shock and that the closure of the business would be a loss for the community.

“It’s just a joy to be here, and to see it be at risk is just scary,” Laino, who helped create the petition, said of the business. “There are a lot of people who really depend on (Knowles) for her knowledge and commitment to the hobby.”

Laino added, “As far as we knew, we had every right to be here and all the documentation to prove it, so this was an incredible wake-up call that we were not expecting.”

The break-in the previous day was also “devastating for us,” Laino said.

“Every single loss is personal because we work hard to keep the fish alive and sure they make it to happy and healthy homes,” Laino said.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.

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