Ten-year-old Maeve Elliott can keep her four pet chickens at her family’s College Township home, for now at least.
College Township Council on Monday night voted to approve a one-time waiver for a $600 zoning appeal fee, allowing Maeve’s parents to appeal an ordinance enforcement prohibiting the keeping of farm animals on less than 10 acres in a residential zoning district.
Nathan Elliott, Maeve’s father, said on Tuesday afternoon the family had filed the appeal, a day before zoning enforcement action — including fines of $500 per day — could begin.
The appeal triggers a stay of any enforcement action until the zoning hearing board hears and decides on the matter, township solicitor Joe Green said during Monday night’s special council meeting. The hearing must be scheduled within 60 days of appeal and a decision rendered within 45 days after the hearing concludes.
Nathan Elliott previously said that he was uncertain if the family could move forward with an appeal if they had to pay the $600 fee. They are unsure if the appeal can be successful at the local level, and if the zoning hearing board were to rule against the Elliotts, they would then have to go through Pennsylvania appeals courts to have it overturned.
Maeve got her four small pet hens — Purple, Banana, Waffles and El — earlier this year, with her family under the impression there was nothing prohibiting the keeping of chickens as pets in College Township.
And there’s not — not precisely, anyway. But there is an old, vaguely worded ordinance that assumes chickens on property to be ‘farm use,’ which is prohibited on residential properties. The Elliotts received a notice from the township zoning officer that they were in violation of that ordinance and that enforcement would go into effect on July 1 if they did not get rid of the chickens.
Maeve, however, isn’t keeping the chickens for eggs or meat. They are pets that she has raised since they were chicks, and her pediatrician wrote a letter explaining their emotional value to Maeve.
Neighbors enjoy Maeve’s ‘side-eye queens‘ — so named for how they look sideways to inspect things —and more than a dozen people spoke in support of keeping the chickens during a June 4 council meeting. The Elliotts were informed someone filed a complaint, leading the zoning officer to issue the notice of violation, but the family has not found out who complained or why as the township has yet to provide documents asked for in Right-to-Know requests.
Green said on Monday the township is working to fulfill those requests.
At the June 4 meeting, council directed township staff to re-examine the ordinance and will consider amending it. That is a process that could take months, but the zoning appeal might buy enough time regardless of the hearing outcome.
‘…[T]he appeal fee decision does not solve the underlying and original issue of the zoning officer’s misapplication of vague ordinances that really do not apply to a person’s situation,’ Nathan Elliott said. ‘People would not need to appeal if ordinances were correctly defined and applied. That also must, and will, change. The council is responsible for providing clear and well-defined language for the community and the zoning officer to use.’
He also said that the township needs to consider a more equitable schedule for appeal fees. Township Manager Adam Brumbaugh said during Monday’s meeting that $600 represents half of the average cost incurred for a zoning hearing, including transcription and fees for the zoning board’s own solicitor.
‘We want to make it clear that the council’s decision yesterday should not just be a one-time waiver,’ Elliott said. ‘If the normal fee is a single fee for everyone, including families and large companies, that’s a problem — especially this year when things are already hard enough for people. The council should evaluate some kind of more equitable fee schedule going forward, beginning with allowing families to appeal and defend themselves at no cost.’
Monday night’s special meeting lasted more than 90 minutes and was largely devoted to discussion of what council can or cannot do in such zoning cases.
Green said that the executive authority of the zoning ordinance is the zoning officer, who under the Municipal Planning Code is charged with reviewing and enforcing his or her literal interpretation of the ordinance. Those decisions are reviewable by the zoning hearing board, but not by council.
‘In that sense the zoning officer is independent,’ Green said.
Councilman Paul Takac noted that previous councils have voted down changes to the ordinance in 2009, 2013 and 2014. While he is supportive of reconsidering and possibly amending the ordinance, Takac said it was not wise to decide on a case-by-case basis which existing ordinances to enforce.
‘We don’t want to get into the situation where we’re picking and choosing which ordinances to enforce..,’ he said. ‘I think that’s a fairly slippery slope to making everything conditional.’
Brumbaugh said that in general the township’s goal is to reach compliance or work with residents to find a resolution, not to levy punitive fines.
That, council Chair Anthony Fragola said, is why he called the special meeting on Monday — to consider at least one fair remedy within council’s power.
‘It’s certainly not lack of empathy on this council’s part,’ he said. ‘I would hope this council has shown nothing but a history of empathy in matters of the heart.’
The chickens are a matter of the heart not only for Maeve and her family, but for her 9-year-old friend Ella Van Velsor, of Julian, who has chickens of her own and who addressed council at the start of the meeting.
‘I love chickens and so does Maeve,’ she said. ‘She takes such good care of them… I know it would break her heart if College Township took them away. Whenever I Facetime Maeve and see her chickens my heart goes nuts. They’re so cute. I love those chickens, but Maeve loves them even more… If you break my best friend’s heart, you’ll break mine too.’
Ella’s mother, Laura Van Velsor, said the ordinance is ‘poorly written and misinterpreted,’ and that it’s clear Maeve is not using her family’s home for farming purposes.
‘Honestly I can’t imagine the fatigue of defending your child’s doctor-verified emotional support animals during a pandemic and economic crisis while also feeling the pressure of pending $500-a-day fines for simply loving four hens,’ she said. ‘With all the horrible uncertainty in the world, seeing a child caring for another living thing should be the universal pause to remember who we are.
‘This isn’t a farming situation. Who has financial gain from their pets?’