The Hope Planning Board gave conditional approval to veterinarian Jim Laurita’s plan to build a facility to house and rehabilitate a retired circus elephant at its July 5 meeting.

Laurita must go before the board for a final appearance after he meets with Fire Chief Clarence Keller and Knox County Emergency Management Agency officials to ensure the project is not an “undue burden” on town services, which is an item outlined in the town’s land use ordinance that a proposal must not do.

It was standing room only in the Hope Town Office, with more than 65 people attending the meeting that lasted a little more than two hours.

Laurita and his brother, Tom Laurita, have formed the nonprofit Hope Elephants and plan to relocate a 42-year-old Asian elephant, Rosie, from the Carson and Barnes Circus, in Hugo, Okla., to Hope to undergo high-end physical therapy to help relieve the nerve paralysis the elephant has developed.

Laurita is looking for planning board approval to build a 3,120-square-foot metal building with cedar shingle siding at his home at 43 Hatchet Mountain Road, across from Hatchet Mountain Publick House.

The meeting opened with a public hearing, which allowed anyone to comment or ask questions about the project, and was not limited solely to Hope residents.

Hope resident Ron Smith was the first to speak, stating that the project was “something outside of the ordinary,” but expressed his support for the project.

Annie Pathik of Owls Head said she was concerned about the Hope community and said the planning board asked for many points to be addressed by Laurita at the June 7 meeting, which had not been done.

Pathik said she was concerned about emergency response and the safety of the community if the animal becomes agitated from being isolated and escapes. She was concerned the animal may have tuberculosis, which could potentially be spread in the manure the Laurita’s plan to sell as compost. She also said she was concerned with the financial burden of the project, stating that it costs approximately $100,000 annually to care for an elephant and said it would be an additional $50,000 if the animal was found to have tuberculosis. She questioned what might happen to the elephant if Laurita cannot finance the project in the long term.

Adam and Jane Thorndike of Hope spoke in favor of the project, stating they were excited to get the animal and knew the Lauritas are educated, and would never do anything to harm an animal.

Hope resident Lisa Cummings said she was concerned with an elephant living in such a cold climate and it being isolated in a barn.

“Doubt an animal in isolation would be happy in the long term,” Cummings said.

Andrew Stewart, who is the owner of Hope General Store, said he spent some time working in the safari industry in Botswana. He said the reality of this particular elephant is that she cannot go elsewhere from where she is now and this is the best thing for her.

“There is no other option for the elephant at present,” Stewart said.

Barbara Favicchia of Camden said a sanctuary in Tennessee indicated it would take the elephant or PAWS, another sanctuary in California.

“This is not right,” she said. Favicchia pleaded with the crowd, stating she knows they all want an elephant, but people would not be teaching their children the right things about elephants with this project.

Tom Laurita said his brother has known this particular elephant for 35 years. She is severely injured and will never walk properly, he said. Laurita said it is not known if her life would be better in a sanctuary, but he does know that her life is not going to get better without the medical treatment this project intends to provide.

Several local teachers spoke about the educational component of the plan, stating it is a great project and will get children thinking about conservation.

Liz Drury said she is curious to know how one would respond to problems with the elephant and what will be the response if a situation arises.

Jim Laurita said he is working on an emergency management plan that outlines what happens if the elephant gets loose, if something happened to him, and other scenarios, that will be submitted to the county EMA office. He also said he would put the plan on the Hope Elephants website.

After about a 40-minute public hearing, the planning board began its review of the ordinance. Board members stated their concerns. John Fallows said he was concerned about public safety. Dick Brodis asked if the project needs state approval. Tug Kellough said the safety issue was paramount to him. Kellough also questioned if the facility was dedicated just to Rosie or if the project continues if she dies. He had concerns on how the elephant would be handled, either by restraints or free management. He said there are supposed to be two trained people on hand and this plan only calls for one, and asked to what extent are public facilities of the town going to be burdened taking care of this elephant.

“Our job is to look at worse case scenarios,” Kellough said.

As far as an emergency action plan, Jim Laurita said the details would all be worked out in the next few weeks and would contain real scenarios. Kellough said he would not feel comfortable approving the plan without that piece in place.

Fallows also said he would like to see indication from local emergency response agencies that they are willing to participate. Kellough said he would like to know a per-call cost for the fire department to assess if this project would facilitate an undue burden on the town.

Kellough also asked if the compost heats enough to kill any pathogens that may or may not be in the material. Jim Laurita said he has documentation from the state that indicates that it is 100 percent killed. Laurita also said the compost will be tested in Orono.

As far as noise, board members asked when elephants generally “trumpet.” Jim Laurita said in the morning hours, but they also make other grunting noises and purr as well. However, he indicated it was long after the roosters.

Kellough said he had some concerns about the financials and asked how fundraising was going. The Laurita brothers indicated that fundraising was going how they expected at this point and said people have come forward that said they would help them once the project gains approval. Jim Laurita estimated that it would cost $123,000 annually to run the entire facility, including caring for the elephant and running the education portion of it. He said it would cost about $7,000 to feed her and $12,000 to heat the barn. The brothers indicated they do have the financial resources to keep the project going if fundraising failed and they said they do, but it’s not the ultimate plan.

The board asked that the Lauritas have a more complete emergency plan in place and talk to the fire chief to see if he is willing to participate and if he considers it a burden to the town.

Kellough said he cannot see that the other questions can be addressed by the standards of the ordinance.

The board approved the plan with the condition by a vote of 5-0.

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