Tucked away on a woodsy street in Golden Gate Estates, an animal preserve has been getting some visitors besides the usual elementary students on field trips to learn about wildlife.
Collier County code enforcers have told the Kowiachobee Animal Preserve on Fourth Avenue Southeast that it has to shut its gates because its five acres is not zoned for the nonprofit educational group to be open to the public.
Since 2001, thousands of schoolchildren have made the trip to get up close with the preserve menagerie of between 100 and 150 animals, from pigs and geese to tigers and lions.
"We're beside ourselves with this," said owner Grace Slaby, who runs the preserve with her husband, John. "That's stuff we'll have to stop. It's really very disheartening."
The run-in with the county recalls another zoning controversy over privately run wildlife attraction, Ngala, also known as Close-up Creatures, in North Belle Meade. That was settled in 2009 after a seven-year permitting saga.
Code enforcers say Kowiachobee can remain at its current location, and preserve managers say they still plan to take animals to local schools and libraries.
The rub with Collier County is about the kind of traffic the preserve generates in a residential neighborhood, county spokeswoman Connie Deane said.
"It's not zoned for field trips, buses, public visits," she said, adding that there might also be problems with adequate parking and handicap accessibility.
Kowiachobee was issued a notice of violation in September 2011 following an August complaint to the county's zoning department. That wasn't the first time county inspectors had knocked on the preserve's door.
Over the years, the preserve has satisfied the county by adjusting the wording on its brochures and on its Facebook page and by changing plans to have radio stations on site for celebrations, preserve manager John Slaby said.
"We've been trying to do everything they wanted us to do," Slaby said. "It's not like we've been fighting them for 10 years."
Deane said she did not know why the county has not told Kowiachobee it had to stop public visits before now, citing unfamiliarity with previous complaints that generated the earlier inspections.
Kowiachobee has all the required state and federal permits, including from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Service and the United States Department of Agriculture.
The preserve should not run afoul of the county's codes because it is not a business operating in a residential area, manager John Slaby said.
Kowiachobee has no hours of operation. It opens by appointment only. Visitors are not charged an admission fee, though some offer voluntary donations. No commerce takes place there, Slaby said.
"There's a jar on a table," Slaby said. "We don't even take money out of peoples' hands."
After issuing the notice of violation, the county gave Kowiachobee options to fix the problem, including pleading its case to county commissioners or getting a rezone approval or variance.
The preserve has continued to operate as usual, and now is set for a May 24 hearing in front of the county's Code Enforcement Board. That board will determine whether a violation exists and, if so, give the preserve a deadline to come into compliance or face undetermined fines.
John Slaby doesn't know whether he'll be there.
He is supposed to be talking to biology students at Palmetto Ridge High School that day, he said.