BEVERLY — A second Beverly family is crying “fowl” over a Board of Health decision banishing their birds.
Last week, a Lothrop Street couple filed suit in Salem Superior Court asking for an injunction that would allow them to keep their six chickens, birds they say are emotional support animals for their 7-year-old daughter, Rafaelle.
Dr. William Wilson and Dr. Irene Tsirozidou’s attorneys say that when they asked the city for a reasonable accommodation for their daughter’s disability under federal housing law and the Americans With Disabilities Act, the request was dismissed as “inapplicable and irrelevant,” according to a letter from the city’s health director, William Burke, who, along with the mayor did not respond to requests for comment last week.
Last Easter, Raffaele started talking about baby chicks, said her mother. So the couple purchased nine chicks and a top-of-the-line maple chicken coop, and set everything up next to their Lothrop Street home. Wilson said he also went to the health department and paid $150 for a permit last April.
The family thought everything was all set. All but one of the chicks grew into hens and, unexpectedly, three roosters.
“She’s attached to the chickens,” said Tsirozidou on Friday.
Raffaele, who was diagnosed with a learning disability and anxiety, developed a routine of caring for the chickens, giving them all names and bonding with them. After school, she would clean out their cages and spend time with them before starting her homework.
“She gets relaxed when she’s with them,” her mother said. and talking about the chickens to others helps with her anxiety, she said.
They heard nothing until months later, when the animal control officer showed up asking to look at the coop — then were told that the coop was too close to both their home and to neighbors’ property lines, said Wilson.
The coop where the birds are kept is less than two feet inside a 25-foot setback from a neighbor’s property line, their attorneys, Jeremy Cohen and Manuel Rabbitt, say in court papers.
After a meeting in September, the Board of Health voted to deny them permission to keep the chickens.
Even as they appealed, they agreed to give up the roosters, saying they understood why neighbors could be bothered by early-morning crowing.
But in its decision, the Board of Health said neighbors had also raised concerns about attracting rodents, odor, and the chickens potentially spreading illnesses — all of which Cohen says are groundless. The city also said that the coop needed to be 25 feet from their home and from neighbors’ property — an impossibility in the crowded neighborhood that lies between downtown Beverly and the ocean. The coop was a little more than 23 feet from the lot line.
The couple brought Cohen into the case after the initial September hearing.
Cohen said he believes the city has misinterpreted the law — and that officials are relying on bad information. For example, he said, the lawyer for the city said at one point that only a dog or miniature horse could qualify as a support animal. “That’s not accurate,” he said.
He had hoped he’d resolved the legal questions and other factual questions prior to the new hearing on Dec. 14.
Instead, the couple and their daughter, who thought that they’d been reasonable in giving up the roosters, were met with a new barrage of criticism — including one person who even suggested that they were “exploiting” their child to have chickens and should be reported to the Department of Children and Families, Cohen said.
Dr. Wilson took that personally,” Cohen said.
“People were yelling at us,” Wilson said.
Cohen had submitted letters from her teachers and a tutor, as well as a therapist, in support of his argument that her reading abilities and anxiety were improving as a result of having her coop of chickens.
“The loudest voices in the room won,” Cohen said. “The facts should win.”
The board stood by its earlier decision, and gave the family two weeks to remove the chickens. Late last week, the city agreed to delay their removal order until the outcome on the preliminary injunction; the hearing had been set for this Wednesday in Newburyport Superior Court but was postponed.
Tsirozidou said she worries that forcing Rafaella to give up her chickens now will set her back.
When she was told about the board’s decision, her mother said Raffaela started crying. “It was heartbreaking,” Tsirozidou said.
Her father said he believes the complaints are “mean spirited.”
“We’re not asking for anything outlandish,” said Wilson.
He said they’ll take their appeal as far as it can go. “If we lose, we can at least say we did the right thing … it’s our daughter. It’s the principle.”
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis