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Ownership of the unfinished animal shelter in Healdsburg has transferred to the Sonoma Humane Society, signaling a brighter day for the troubled building, which has sat empty for more than three years.

The property transfer from the defunct Healdsburg Animal Shelter registered on Christmas Eve. It paves the way for the Humane Society to complete the building and likely open sometime in 2015, according to Kiska Icard, executive director.

“We are really excited because we’re not just going to build a kennel space. We’re really putting a lot of thought into addressing the animals’ emotional needs,” she said Monday. “We’re looking at giving as much consideration to their mental needs as to their physical needs.”

A dog play area, canine training area, a separate stress-free area for cats, and room for community events are just part of the formula. But it’s going to take more donations and fundraising to close the gap between approximately $150,000 on hand and the estimated $500,000 to repair the building’s defects and complete the remodel.

“It’s a very good community. I hope that when people see what we are attempting to do, the support will occur,” Icard said.

The asset transfer between the two animal welfare organizations was agreed to last summer, but elements of the deal had to be approved by the state Attorney General’s office and Secretary of State as the more than half-century-old, nonprofit Healdsburg Animal Shelter dissolved and handed over its assets to the Humane Society. That included the proceeds of a low “six-figure” lawsuit settlement involving construction defects at the shelter, located on Bacchus Landing Way, off Westside Road.

Work on the almost finished, 7,500-square-foot building came to a halt in late 2011 with the bankruptcy of the general contractor. Unpaid subcontractors then filed liens for payment against the Healdsburg Animal Shelter, which in turn sued the general contractor and others for building and design deficiencies.

Most of the money for the unfinished shelter — $2.9 million — originated from a bequest in the estate of the late vintner Rodney Strong and his wife, Charlotte, who was passionate about dogs and showed old English mastiffs, huge dogs that can weigh 180 pounds. She also organized dog shows and judged for the American Kennel Club.

But there were problems beyond the construction woes of the unfinished building.

Doubts were raised about the Healdsburg Animal Shelter’s avowed “no kill policy” after a couple incidents involving dogs that were brought to the smaller, since-demolished shelter across the street.

In the first instance, in late 2011, well-known Healdsburg chef Doug Keane filed a lawsuit to prevent the potential euthanizing of a dog named “Cash” whom he later adopted.

Shortly afterward, the executive director who had tangled with Keane, resigned. She joined three other recent directors who had held the job for relatively short periods, including one who was on the job for only four months before being let go.

The shelter also had high turnover and infighting on the board of directors. When the board decided to close its meetings to the public, there was clamor for more transparency.

Donations — critical to the survival of the organization — plummeted.

In mid-2013, after more than 50 years in existence, the Healdsburg Animal Shelter shut its doors and dismissed its nine-employee workforce, citing a lack of money and a fruitless appeal for community funding.

Bob Wilkie, the secretary-treasurer who joined the board in its final days and has helped shepherd the transition, said in a prepared statement that given the Humane Society’s high performance standards “we believe this transfer will elevate the care and resources for animals in our community to new heights.”

Currently, the Humane Society operates out of two trailers at the site next to the unfinished shelter. Under a contract with the city of Healdsburg, residents can surrender or adopt animals, be reunited with lost pets, and pay for licensing.

Dogs aren’t kept there overnight, but are sent back to the Humane Society’s headquarters off Highway 12, east of Sebastopol.

The Petaluma Animal Services Foundation, which handles stray, vicious and injured Healdsburg animals, also operated in a trailer next to the unfinished shelter.

Healdsburg Police Chief Kevin Burke, whose department oversees the annual $235,000 contract with the animal welfare agencies, said Monday that feedback has been “nothing but positive.”

“The arrangement is working out exceptionally well,” he said, adding that animal control officers are very visible and accessible and work with police dispatchers on a daily basis.

He said the Humane Society has lived up to its reputation for delivering high-quality care and harboring of animals.

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