Backyard chickens for autistic child approved by BOC

Cecile Ferguson asks for a Land Use Permit to keep backyard chickens and other farm animals as therapy for her son Josiah, who has autism (photo by Larry Felton Johnson) Cecile Ferguson asks for a Land Use Permit to keep backyard chickens and other farm animals as therapy for her son Josiah, who has autism (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

After an impassioned presentation from Cobb homeowner Cecile Ferguson, the Cobb County Board of Commissioners approved a Land Use Permit for four backyard chickens on her 0.76-acre lot. The chickens will serve as therapy animals for her son Josiah, who has autism. The property is on Blackwell Road.

Ferguson said her son, in addition to autism, was also diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety, and a number of other behavioral disorders.  She said that through research she had come across an article about the benefits of animal therapy for children with autism in helping develop social skills, improve communication, and help with behavioral issues.

“This is my third time here, before different boards, and the process has been extremely daunting.  I did not know, honestly, the amount of power and authority the board (and) the Planning Commission has to greatly impact my life, the life of my family, the desires of my heart, what matters most to me.  I’ve not had opposition from my neighbors at all, through the entire process going back to June.”

She said District 3 Commissioner JoAnn Birrell had visited her house recently and walked her property. Ferguson lives in Birrell’s district and Birrell has been one of the commissioners most often opposed to backyard chickens.

“She was very candid with me,” Ferguson said, “very open and honest, very direct with me regarding her concerns and her feeling and her thought about what it is I’m asking this board to consider.  And I equally, respectfully, was very candid and very direct with her.  I told her that I was really floored by strangers I would not have otherwise met but for this process telling me … ‘I think this is a better thing for you to do … I think your child would benefit from having small animals, you know, domestic animals. Or I think you’re trying to do too much with your land.'”

“And I cannot (as) a parent or property owner express how off-putting that was and upsetting to me, because I felt helpless but for God, for prayer,” she said.

“Commissioner Birrell, when she came to my property, was surprised that my next door neighbor had chickens! Because the rooster began to crow.  And she was saying ‘it’s illegal’.  OK, and I said to her ‘You didn’t know about it because we didn’t care!’ The neighbors don’t care.  The rooster is something new (but) he’s had the chickens for four years, he and his family and grandchildren, collecting the eggs and having a great time. No one has made any fuss.”

After Ferguson spoke, Birrell said, “You do know the code, and you do know the reasons why we go through this process, and for livestock it is two acres and for poultry as well, going through the variance and land use process.  I think what I could support would be reasonable at this time, would (be) to grant you four chickens. No roosters. Four chickens for a one-year Land Use Permit.”

District 4 Commissioner Lisa Cupid said “We were funny about it, but this is a significant shift, and I think it goes to the amount of persuasiveness that you have in your commitment to your child.”

Cupid said, “And please know, that although you’re not getting all that you requested today, for Commissioner Birrell to approve this at all, in light of her history, is significant.”

The motion passed 4-0 (Commissioner Bob Ott was absent).

The BOC denied the request for goats and sheep but waived the fee should Ferguson decide to reapply for those animals next year.

Ferguson told the Courier after the vote that one of her frustrations was that she thought commercial developers get more consideration when applying for variances and permits than individuals like her.

Joseph Pond responded to the case on the Facebook group of the Backyard Chickens Alliance of Cobb County.  Pond is a candidate for the Cobb County Board of Commissioners in Birrell’s district and an advocate for the right of county residents to have backyard chickens.

He said, “It should not be easier to build a stadium than to own a hen.”

[Editor’s Note: The embedded link to the video of Cecile Ferguson’s testimony quit working, so I’ve removed it while I figure out what happened to it]