Every morning for the past 15 weeks, Maeve Elliott, has been getting up and caring for her four new pets — Purple, Banana, Waffles and El.
During the time of social distancing, the pets have given Maeve companionship and structure, as the very social 10-year-old misses her estranged friends and classmates.
Now, College Township is telling her family they have until the end of the month to get rid of her newfound friends, or else face hefty fines.
This is because Maeve’s pets are chickens, and the township considers them to be farm animals and not pets. In College Township, the current zoning ordinance prohibits the keeping of farm animals on less than 10 acres in a residential zoning district.
The township is considering a potential change to the ordinance, but that will take time. During the township’s meeting on June 4, council said it is willing to re-examine the current restrictions on chickens in a residential zoning district.
Manager Adam Brumbaugh said township staff is going to focus on potential changes to the definition of “farm use” before suggesting possible new or amended regulations. He said he anticipates that council will next see something from staff on this at the July 16 council meeting and, depending on member comments, the matter could be pushed on to the planning commission for its review. Any possible changes to the current ordinance will likely take two to three months or perhaps longer depending on the discussion between the PC and council members.
In the meantime, that leaves Maeve having to give up her chickens or her family faces a daily fine. In accordance with section 200.52(C) of the Township Zoning Ordinance, they could see a fine of $500 per day, per violation, which will be assessed if they are not in compliance, said township engineer Don Franson.
“She has been devastated. The fundamental issue here is that we see and treat these chickens as pets,” said her father, Nathan Elliott.
“They are not kept as egg production instruments or meat products. Just like people can keep parrots, iguanas, tilapia and other fish, rabbits and pigs, there are so many examples online and nationally of people keeping chickens as pets, as well. If you look at tilapia, fish or rabbits as two examples, some people ‘farm’ them, while others strictly keep them as pets. Some animals can be kept for different purposes.”
Maeve Elliott’s pet chickens, which she calls her “side-eyed queens,” have kept her company during the COVID-19 pandemic; however, zoning ordinances in College Township don’t allow chickens to be raised or harbored on residential property. Photo by Vince Corso | The Gazette
He said the chickens have been very helpful to Maeve, providing companionship during a difficult time. He said keeping chickens as pets is becoming more common and has been a huge benefit for his daughter.
“Our daughter even has a letter from her pediatrician explaining the emotional value to her of keeping her chickens here at our house with us,” he said.
He said the township did receive a complaint about his daughter’s chickens, but he has been unable to find out where it came from. The family filed a right-to-know request, but the township invoked a 30-day extension for responding, pushing it past the enforcement deadline as well as the date for filing an appeal to the Zoning Hearing Board, which itself involves a $600 fee.
As far as he can tell, his neighbors enjoy seeing the chickens and stop by often to see how they are doing.
“We have seen more smiles and people in this neighborhood have engaged in more community-building conversation than anyone remembers in a very long time,” Elliott commented.
“They are good for this community and certainly good for Maeve.”
More than a dozen people spoke at the June 4 council meeting, all in favor of keeping the chickens.
Maeve spoke at the township meeting and has started a Facebook page called “Save Maeve’s side-eye queens.” She called them her side-eyed queens because they look sideways to inspect things.
Pets or not, many other municipalities have moved to allow domestic chickens over the past 12 years, with regulations in place.
In 2008, State College Borough passed an ordinance which allowed residents to harbor chickens.
This ordinance has regulations allowing for just four hens on a single property, and, in order to reduce potential noise, contains language prohibiting roosters on properties smaller than 10 acres.
Neighboring Ferguson Township adopted a domestic chicken ordinance in 2016 which allows homeowners of single-family lots in residential districts to legally own up to six chickens — specifically hens — for domestic purposes.
Patton Township, another neighbor, also allows four hens. Patton’s ordinance states all hens must be housed in a roofed coop that is stationary, secure and enclosed. The coop cannot be within 30 feet of any main building on an adjacent lot.
While some people may be concerned about the effect of property value, Realtor Bob Langton from Keller Williams Realtors said that he has not seen where chicken harboring affects property value in the region, mostly because so few people actually have the animals.
“I think if every fourth or fifth house in a neighborhood had chickens then that might affect that particular neighborhood,” said Langton. “Then again, you may find people that move into that neighborhood because they want to get chickens.”
He said regulations, such as not allowing the louder roosters and keeping the numbers to four or six hens, are in place in the municipalities that allow farm animals.
“I think there would be people that may not buy a house because the person next to them has chickens; however, I think somebody would pay the going rate for a house even with chickens next door,” said Langton.
Maeve’s “side-eyed queens” are brought inside every night, and in the morning, she takes them back out to their mobile pen. She plays with them, cleans them, feeds them on their little, custom picnic table and cares for them.
Nathan Elliott understands that there are people out there who are against owning and raising chickens in residential neighborhoods, but he said, “it has been a minority every time, but some people don’t like cats and some people don’t like dogs. They don’t like the barking or dogs making a mess on their lawns, but that doesn’t stop people having pets, as long as they are maintained and doing it well. So if they are going to regulate things, they should be regulating sanitation and have a waste plan, just like the borough, that spells out what you should do,” he said.
“All the regulations would be fine, if they have them here.”
Nathan Elliott said the options for the family come July 1 aren’t good — either find a place outside the township where here chickens can reside or pay a fine. For Maeve, not having her pets with her everyday will be difficult.
“They are cool animals. I have learned so much from them,” she said.
Without them, she said, “I would feel very sad and lonely.”