By Erika Webb
DeBary's pilot program to allow backyard chickens finally got off the ground at the Dec. 5 City Council meeting. Council members voted 4-0 in favor of the program, which applies only in certain districts and with conditions.
For JJ Hart, the little boy at the center of a big debate, the adoption of the ordinance means he gets to keep three of his six chickens, which his parents and doctor have said are therapeutic for him. JJ was diagnosed with autism and other disorders in February.
The council chamber was packed with residents, news media and supercharged emotions as council members sifted through information and options.
Confusion over the differences between the coop and the surrounding enclosure arose as the Harts' attorney, Mark Nation, appealed to the council to amend the proposed ordinance and allow the chickens to run free in the family's fenced backyard as long as they're supervised. He said chasing the chickens is physically beneficial for JJ. He cited a video on a Facebook page, which shows the boy happily running after the chickens, which he calls his "ducks."
Mr. Nation explained to the council the coop is where chickens sleep; the enclosure surrounds the coop, and the family wanted the chickens to be allowed to leave the enclosure for limited periods of time.
Councilman Nick Koval repeatedly stated the chickens would need to return to the "coop" following interaction. Mr. Nation corrected him, saying "enclosure."
Again, Mr. Nation defined coop and enclosure.
Finally, Councilman Hunt said, "Put the chickens back in the enclosure. If they want to go in the coop and go to sleep that's up to them."
Laughter and clapping followed.
Ultimately, the council voted to amend the language to allow JJ's chickens to roam supervised outside of the enclosure but inside the backyard fence.
Mr. Nation's third request to the council was to make the ordinance permanent, "not just a one-year pilot program."
"The message I get from these folks is that they don't want to have to come back; they will come back, in a year, but they don't want to have to come back in a year and deal with this again," he said. "Make the change a permanent change."
But the council stood firm on the one-year trial. Councilman Hunt called it "smart government" to observe the program's impact and determine, "what went right, what went wrong and what can we do to tweak it."
Then, there was the matter of notification. Originally, the pilot program called for the approval of every resident within 200 feet of an owner's property before a permit to have chickens would be issued.
Mr. Nation argued that would give one person veto power, possibly based on "something that's not valid."
In the end, the council agreed to notify those residents and let them voice any concerns to City Manager Dan Parrott.
"I must admit in society, 100 people could be in the same room and 99 of them are thinking the same thing, but one isn't," Councilman Hunt said. "This cleans that up. We shouldn't give one person veto power. It would be wise to remove that language."
Two days after the meeting, JJ's mom, Ashleigh Hart, was at a friend's farm visiting the three chickens they relocated in order to comply with the ordinance. She said it turns out that one of the chickens, D.D., "is a boy."
The pilot program only allows hens, so he was the first chosen to go.
Ms. Hart said some good things have come out of a trying situation including a "signature program" with Bounce Marketing called JJ's Cluck N' Ducks Ms. Hart hopes will raise awareness about children with special needs. She said her own awareness of related causes has increased.
"There's lemonade out of lemons," she said.
Mayor Bob Garcia was not present at the meeting, but this time his absence was excused. The mayor has come under some intense scrutiny in recent months due to his public comments concerning the council's actions and discussions relative to the chicken situation -- also his absences from council meetings and expenses.
Though the mayor has, since taking office in 2008, declined the $600 monthly compensation to which he's entitled for holding the office, two years' worth of mileage and expense vouchers he turned in totaled more than $6,000, more than three times the amount claimed by any other council member, according to City Manager Parrott
At the Dec. 5 meeting, the council addressed some of the issues they've had with the mayor by adopting new resolutions.
Resolution no. 12-19 requires a formal written request from the council member for his or her absence to be excused by the council. An excused absence is defined as an absence for illness, family emergency and/or a business conflict.
Resolution no. 12-20 specifically sets forth a provision governing reimbursement for allowable mileage of personal vehicles. The balance of the resolution is in accordance with existing policy and/or Florida Statutes governing business travel.
Resolution no. 12-21 creates a policy to govern the placement of city decals on private vehicles, and "requires the owner of the vehicle to purchase and keep in effect insurance that protects the city from claims for damages because of bodily injury, death of a person and property damage arising out of the ownership, maintenance and use of a motor vehicle with coverage of at least $1 million per occurrence with the city named as an additional insured."
"The mayor is a man about town," Councilman Hunt said in a phone interview. "And when you've got the mayor driving around making irrational statements with the mayor sticker on the side of his car, we have to think about liability for the city."