Rural, Suburban Values Collide in Rooster Tale

By IAN FEIN

Almost four years ago, just after her 12th birthday, Jessica Rose Seidman ordered a half dozen chicken eggs from a catalogue and built her own incubator. One hatched. She named him Chickie and raised him as a pet in her backyard coop.

A docile, tame and beautiful Rhode Island Red rooster, Chickie in the time since has earned four first-place awards in Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society Livestock Show and Fair - three times best in show.

Last week, the Tisbury zoning board of appeals told Ms. Seidman to get rid of her rooster.

Town zoning bylaws require a special permit to raise fowl. And after receiving complaints from neighbors, who turned out in force for a public hearing last Thursday, zoning board members voted unanimously to give Ms. Seidman three months to find another home for Chickie.

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Ms. Seidman, now 15, who presented her own case to the zoning board last week, was devastated.

"He was my baby. I raised him, hatched him, and helped him get out of the egg," she said.

"When he was this big," Ms. Seidman added, making a small circle with her index fingers and thumbs, "he would chase me around because he thought I was his mother. Which, in effect, I was."

Chickie and Jessica are caught up in a Vineyard neighborhood dispute that has grown more common as the increasing creep of suburban values collide with the traditional rural way of life on the Island. A West Tisbury seasonal resident last year hired an attorney to write a letter to town selectmen, asking them to intervene with a noisy rooster next door.

The Seidman home in Vineyard Haven sits on the border between one-acre and three-acre zoning. The first house on Mayflower Lane, it has a dog pen, chicken coop, composting bin and garden in the backyard, while most of the other relatively large homes further up the road have manicured lawns.

"I moved here because it was a rural subdivision," Daniel Seidman, Jessica's father, said this week. "But some people up the street want to make it a typical suburban community."

Mayflower Lane homeowners complained at the zoning board hearing last week that chickens were not appropriate for their neighborhood. They expressed concern that the Seidman coop would affect their property values, and said they were worried that fowl would attract rodents and other pests. The complaints reflect the changing character of a town that has a street known as Chicken Alley, where lifelong Vineyard Haven resident and current Mayflower Lane homeowner Eugene DeCosta spent much of his life.

"I lived there 20 years, and everyone had chickens," Mr. DeCosta told the zoning board last week. "But fowl bring rats. And I didn't build up there [on Mayflower Lane] to have rats."

Though neighbors on Mayflower Lane spoke against the rooster at the hearing, an equal number of immediate abutters wrote letters of support. The Martha's Vineyard Land Bank Commission, which owns the 80-acre Tisbury Meadow Preserve directly across State Road from the Seidmans, encouraged the zoning board to approve a special permit that would allow Chickie to stay in the only home he has ever known.

"This sort of land use should be promoted on the Island and elsewhere, as a sensible and ordinary backyard activity," the land bank commission wrote.

Mr. Seidman maintains that the entire episode arose only after a personal spat between himself and the neighborhood homeowners' association, noting that no one complained about the rooster for the first three years. After receiving a letter of inquiry from the association this summer, Mr. Seidman replied that his daughter had a pet rooster and two hens. He did not hear about the issue again until late November, when he received a call from the Tisbury building inspector, which eventually led to the one-hour hearing last week.

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An associate member of the zoning board who recused himself to sit with his daughter on the other side of the table as an applicant, Mr. Seidman said he never thought he needed a special permit because he did not consider the pet chickens to be raising fowl.

But for the most part, Ms. Seidman presented her own case. She responded to comments from board members and neighbors, easily rattling off from memory detailed information about Rhode Island Reds. She showed the multiple blue ribbons Chickie had earned at the annual Agricultural Fair.

About 10 Mayflower Lane residents turned out to speak against the application. Zoning board chairman Jeffrey Kristal said he was "happy about the process," and noted that only twice a year does the board see so many people turn out for a public hearing.

"It takes a lot of courage for your neighbors to speak out," Mr. Kristal said last Thursday.

"Say what you want about them," Mr. Seidman replied, "but I think it takes a lot more courage for a 15 year-old to sit here before you."

John Pearson, who lives across and up Mayflower Lane from the Seidmans, said he assumed that livestock and other barnyard animals were not allowed on the street, and so he was opposed from the standpoint of a property owner. "But I'm fairly conflicted on this," he acknowledged. "I also have grandchildren, and this young lady gave a compelling presentation why she should be allowed to keep them."

No neighbors brought up noise in their original complaints to the board, but they all chimed in after Mr. Kristal raised the issue. Mr. Pearson noted that he could hear the rooster crowing, but said he enjoyed the sound because he grew up on a farm.

On the basis of noise, the zoning board told Ms. Seidman she could not keep her rooster. Mr. Kristal said that in his years as a member, the board had never allowed a rooster in a residential area. The board granted Ms. Seidman a special permit to keep her two hens, Zuki and Midnight, under the condition that she not replace them once they die, and that the chicken coop be screened so that it cannot be seen from the road. Ms. Seidman explained that though she loved the hens, which she bought as chicks from SBS, she was far more attached to Chickie the rooster, which she raised from an egg.

"He is my pet," she said. "It would be like me telling you that dogs are not domesticated."

Zoning board member Susan Fairbanks had her pet dog sitting on her lap during the hearing.

By all accounts, Chickie is not a typical rooster. Because he was raised as a pet, he is docile. Ms. Seidman bathes him, clips his nails, and can cradle him upside down in her arms. Chickie is a big hit with young children at the Agricultural Fair, where, in addition to winning his blue ribbons, he also met former President Bill Clinton on his 60th birthday last summer.

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Ms. Seidman, a sophomore at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, this week was still recovering from the zoning board hearing.

"It's been stressful," she said. "It's hard to concentrate in school when half the time you're thinking about finding a home for your pet."

She is considering sending Chickie to a friend's home in Edgartown, but does not know whether his parents will approve. Having fed the rooster and cleaned his water every morning for four years, she wants to find a home where she can visit regularly, though she will not receive her driver's license until November.

Mr. Seidman remains beside himself. He quietly fumed about calling an attorney this week, but admitted that he was not sure of his next step.

"It's like that line in George Orwell's Animal Farm: ‘All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others,' " he said. "That's how I feel. It feels like the pigs have taken over."