Cat fight: Kent woman defends furry turf against neighbors

CAMDEN-WYOMING — A costly dispute over feral felines has continued for roughly 3 1/2 years now.

Some Village of Wild Quail Golf and Country Club neighbors object to the approximately 40 cats trotting around Janice Rossell’s residence, and filed a lawsuit to make them go away.

Ms. Rossell, 78, won’t hear of it, insisting that she feeds and waters the roaming pussycats three times a day before having them spayed, neutered and/or vaccinated, lowering their population.

A Quail Village Homeowners Association, Inc. request for summary judgment against Ms. Rossell was denied in Chancery Court on Dec. 15, 2016. The matter was recommended for trial.

Attempts to reach the QVHA for comment were unsuccessful.

Janice Rossell holds one of the many cats that she takes care of at her home near Camden. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

At the end of 2016, Ms. Rossell estimated she’s paid $15,000 in associated fees connected to the lawsuit and “maybe” $14,000 annually in cat food.

There’s no quantifying her stress level, the homeowner said.

The approximately acre-sized property and 2,400 square foot home at 742 Raven Circle was up for sale for approximately six months, but taken off the market in fall 2015. Ms. Rossell said she’s invested too much time and money to leave a cause she believes in so much.

The homeowner suspects that one person arrived at an earlier showing only to investigate the mouser haven and gather information on her furry visitors.

“Something just didn’t seem right about her,” said Ms. Rossell, a 12-year western Kent County resident since moving from Delran Township, New Jersey with her now late husband.

A few cats lounge on Janice Rossell’s front porch near Camden. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Also, Ms. Rossell said she has seen vehicles stopped in front of her home for taking photos and kids sent to count the cats.

Ms. Rossell said she doesn’t know all but a few neighbors, and hasn’t experienced any overt hostility.

“At a 70th birthday party I did get an inkling that some neighbors were not happy with my hosting the cats,” she said.

Even after a dozen years, Ms. Rossell says, “You don’t see your neighbors here, people aren’t caring here. There was one time when a woman died in her home, her daughter couldn’t get in touch with her, and she was found a day later.”

Leaving the kittycats now would pull at Ms. Rossell’s heartstrings.

“I feel bad for them,” she said of her four-legged house guests.

“A lot of people think cats are some animal like a rat, but cats are smart. There’s this vision of feral ones being ugly and fat, but that’s not so.”

Some neighbors opposed

In its lawsuit, QVHA said 12 residents “are prepared to testify during a trial about how Rossell’s activities have created a nuisance and dangerous or offensive condition in violation” of deed restrictions.

The QVHA alleges that an outside structure was improperly built without an architectural review committee, and it houses undomesticated cats drawn to the area through feed and water.

However, according to Ms. Rossell several properties around her have violated deed restrictions such as having a pool house with a full kitchen, and three-car garage, among others. Ms. Rossell said she has the pictures to prove it.

A cat sits in a box on Janice Rossell’s front porch near Camden. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“It’s really all about who you know,” she said. “While some say they’re attorneys and why question them, I say ‘Hey, we all put our pants on the same way.’ “

The HOA argues that the use of any lot within Quail Village to create a nuisance, offensive or dangerous situation is prohibited by deed restrictions.

Ms. Rossell maintains the outdoor building built by her live-in son in 2012 was designed as a playhouse for her granddaughter.

Now, she says, the heated and air-conditioned structure is used for storage, “and if cats need a warm place.” There’s a door to let them in and a couple boxes with blankets to provide comfort.

The majority of cats stay in Ms. Rossell’s garage, with four using either the outside building or on the porch. The property is equipped with hand-warmers for chilly paws this time of year.

One ailing cat lives alone inside the master bathroom, stricken with Leukemia.

Comforting kitties

Ms. Rossell has physical issues of her own, taking cancer pills to regulate blood cells and living with Chronic Lyme Disease.

The felines provide their own brand of soothing attention, according to the widow of five years.

“If I’m upset, like when my husband passed, they’re right there with me,” she said. “They know when I’m sick and needing some comfort.”

Janice Rossell converted her granddaughter’s outside doll house into a place for the cats to stay when it gets below freezing. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Ms. Rossell will always be indebted to the late kitty she said saved her daughter’s life after a Navy fighter jet crashed into her 36-unit apartment complex in Smyrna, Georgia on Nov. 10, 1989.

The heroic feline nipped at the lucky woman to wake her and escape the sudden danger, but was herself lost to fire after taking refuge behind a refrigerator, Ms. Rossell said.

The situation apparently meets Delaware Code standards, and Ms. Rossell said the Office of Animal Welfare checked in earlier and found no issues.

“They wanted to make sure I wasn’t a cat hoarder or harming them,” she said.

“They saw that I wasn’t.”

Last week, the Division of Public Health declined comment on the lawsuit, citing policy not to discuss specifics of any case.

In general terms, spokeswoman Emily Knearl said, “Cats are allowed to roam free and it is not illegal to feed them.

“While handled differently than dogs in many respects under the law, cats are still covered by cruelty laws.”

The OAW “does work with caregivers to connect them to low cost resources to get cats neutered and vaccinated if they qualify.”

For more information on neutering and vaccinations, call 255-4620.

Eliminating a cat’s reproductive ability is a population control benefit to Quail Village, Ms. Rossell maintains. She claims to have financed the sterilizations herself.

“If I don’t get them fixed that means there will be more with every litter,” she said. “If everyone in the development takes an interest in getting them fixed when they show up, there won’t be this trouble.”

Janice Rossell converted her granddaughter’s outside doll house into a place for the cats to stay when it gets below freezing. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Many of the felines may be arriving through woods bordering the back of Ms. Rossell’s property, possibly from nearby Amish farms, she believes.

Also, the defendant has surveillance video evidence showing vehicles pulling up and dropping off cats, and claims neighbors with cats producing large litters are also responsible for the growing population.

All the roaming pussycats she hosts have names “according to how they look,” said Ms. Rossell, before rattling off identities such as Smudgy, Funny Face, Cherie A’mour, Road Map, Kit and Kat, Bella, Maxie, She and She II, Golden Eyes, Copycat, Stray, Blackie, Prrboy, Buttons, Beautiful, Gizmo, Princess and others.

With three feedings a day, Ms. Rossell opens 32 cans and a bag of dry food daily, in addition to water. She rises at 6:30 a.m. for breakfast, serves lunch between 2-3 p.m. and puts out a night-time snack to cure any hunger pangs.

The first letter

The saga commenced on June 12, 2013 when Ms. Rossell received a letter from the QVHA counsel including a subject line “Failure to Comply with the restrictive covenants for the Quail Village Subdivision.”

Attorney Gary R. Dodge began by referencing “numerous attempts” of the QVHA to “secure voluntary compliance” with some community covenants, “violation” had continued.

At the time, Mr. Dodge had been notified by Quail Village of “at least one if not two violations that require immediate attention.” An accessory building without architectural approval was at issue, along with the structure being “used to provide outside housing for a number of animals.”

The correspondence indicated the animals and building must be permanently removed within 30 days, or the QVHA would seek an order from the Court of Chancery to abide by deed covenants and restrictions.

The possibility of legal action was raised, and Mr. Dodge cited Delaware Code requiring the losing party at trial obligated to pay all court costs and attorneys fees “unless such an award would be unfair, unreasonable, or a harsh outcome.”

Attorney’s fees and court cost awards would be sought in any application seeking enforcement, Mr. Dodge cautioned.

Mr. Dodge advised Ms. Rossell to deal directly with the QVHA in resolving the matter.

In a letter to Ms. Rossell’s attorney Peter Schaeffer on Sept. 4, 2014, Mr. Dodge discussed the possibility of a voluntary dismissal, but indicated an unwillingness to pay for any expenses that Ms. Rossell “has incurred, given that action was brought in good faith, and the only reason that they are willing at this time to consider dismissal is that it has become apparent that your client is prepared to engage in protracted and unnecessary expensive litigation …”

At the time, Mr. Dodge expressed concern “whether we’re about to turn what was a relatively simple deed restriction case into an unnecessarily costly endeavor that could result in either of the parties incurring litigation expenses far in excess of their means …”

Also, the attorney wondered “whether there is something on a professional level that would explain how we have gotten to this point, which I might be able to be of assistance on.”

On April 28, 2015, Mr. Dodge referenced a letter asking Chancery Court to suspend a pre-trial scheduling order “until several issues are addressed …”

Mr. Dodge said he had “some significant concerns” about “inadequate discovery responses.” A witness list and documents to be provided seven days before trial were at issue, along with affirmative defenses that could be introduced.

“I view this as little short of trial by ambush, and will oppose that, thereby creating a record if the Court is inclined to permit this kind of activity to occur,” Mr. Dodge maintained.

According to the Court of Chancery order, a trial was originally scheduled for Oct. 2015, was re-scheduled for Sept. 7, 2016, “and now has been continued to a later date at the request of counsel.”

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