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Prospects are looking up for the unfinished Healdsburg Animal Shelter, which has sat forlorn and unoccupied for more than two years, mired in a lawsuit over construction defects.

The shelter's board of directors announced late Thursday that the lawsuit was settled just before trial, which will allow the shuttered building off Westside Road to be completed and become functional.

Terms of the settlement are confidential, but shelter directors were pleased with the result.

"It means we'll have the resources to move ahead with what we've already started with the (Sonoma County) Humane Society and get that building for the first time for an animal shelter — what the donors wanted," said Robert Wilkie, the board's secretary-treasurer.

He said it is still uncertain when it will be able open, but "we got enough money that we can move ahead with fixing it up."

The news was welcomed by city officials as well as at the Humane Society, which had to step in and take over shelter services in Healdsburg, operating out of two less than ideal trailers.

"For us in Healdsburg, it is critical to our long-term goals for animal control and shelter to have this building able to be up and running as originally planned," Mayor Jim Wood said Friday.

"My biggest concern was that it had to go into private hands, and never be realized as a shelter. What a travesty (that would have been) for animals and donors who wanted this to be their legacy," said Kisca Icard, executive director of the Humane Society.

The $3.5 million, airy, 7,500-square-foot shelter was built largely with a behest from the estate of the late vintner Rodney Strong and his wife, Charlotte. It was seen as modern, more welcoming successor to the nearby cramped shelter built in 1960.

But shortly before the facility could be completed in late 2011, general contractor Syd Kelly went bankrupt. Unpaid sub-contractors filed liens for payment against the Healdsburg Animal Shelter, which in turn alleged construction and design defects in the building.

The most visible signs of problems were cracks in the cement foundation that became symbolic of the rift in the community that ensued around the same time.

There was infighting among the board of directors, frequent turnover of executive directors and doubts raised about the shelter's avowed "no kill" policy after a couple of incidents involving dogs that were brought to the shelter.

In late 2011, well-known Healdsburg chef Douglas Keane filed a lawsuit to prevent the potential euthanizing of a dog named Cash who was later adopted.

There were also complaints about a lack of transparency on the board of directors, who decided to shut the public out of their monthly meetings and make volunteers sign confidentiality agreements.

"What you see is a community that is passionate about animals. When things don't go well, those passions, they sometimes conflict," Mayor Wood said Friday of the tumult at that time.

Last summer, the Healdsburg Animal Shelter shut its doors after more than 50 years in existence and dismissed its nine employees, citing a lack of money and fruitless appeals to the community for funding.

Sonoma County Animal Care and Control stepped into the breach before the City Council approved a $235,000 annual contract for two non-profit agencies to deal with Healdsburg's animals.

Currently the Sonoma County Humane Society occupies two trailers next to the unfinished shelter where Healdsburg residents can surrender or adopt animals, be reunited with loose pets, and pay for licensing without having to travel outside the city.

The Petaluma Animal Services Foundation provides animal control for Healdsburg, handling stray, vicious or injured animals.

While cats are able to stay overnight in Healdsburg, dogs have to be sheltered at the Humane Society's headquarters east of Sebastopol.

Opening the new building will allow for more animals to be accommodated in a more welcoming environment.

Despite the construction defects, Wilkie said the facility is "perfectly structurally viable and a rather attractive building."

While it still hasn't been determined what remedial work will be done, he said "the defects that make it not usable today can be mitigated in a variety of different ways."

"It's nice to see a lemon turned into lemonade. If this hadn't worked out this way, the legacy of that building would have been a very serious scar on the history and tradition of the town," Wilkie said. "It means every dollar people gave and every volunteer who put in time did so for a worthwhile end."

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.