Florida family fights for son’s emotional support chickens
Every morning before school, Jennifer Wildasin’s 9-year-old son runs down in his pajamas, puts on his rainboots and heads out to the backyard to take care of his eight chickens.
Cole is responsible for feeding the chickens, cleaning their pen and collecting the eggs they lay. But the chickens aren’t just pets, the family considers them emotional support animals.
Wildasin adopted Cole when he was just three months old, as he was recovering from abuse that left him with a traumatic brain injury. As he grew older, Cole was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia and is currently struggling to keep up in school.
“I have a special brain so they help calm me down,” Cole said on Wednesday as he held Chickaletta, who lays special blue eggs. “They’re support animals to me.”
Wildasin says she was surprised to see how attached Cole became to his chickens since they bought them as baby chicks nearly a year ago.
“He always wanted a chicken and I had no clue that he was going to be so involved,” Wildasin said. “You’d think like a dog or a cat, kids lose interest, but he’s had them since they were babies and he’s just been taking care of them ever since.”
But when the family moved to St. Augustine Beach from Pennsylvania over the summer, Wildasin said, she didn’t realize keeping chickens was prohibited within city limits.
After the city’s code enforcement agency was called to her home on A Street, Wildasin requested a variance hearing in front of the Planning and Zoning Board to allow her to keep the chickens on her property for her son.
She provided medical records detailing Cole’s condition and a doctor’s note explaining that the chickens “help him focus, care and nurture.”
At the Nov. 19 meeting, the board debated whether a variance was the proper vehicle to allow her to keep the chickens, as variances apply to the specific piece of land, not the person living on it.
“I am thrilled to hear that he has found something to do that has given some purpose and I do hope we can help, but I am also concerned about the precedent we’d be setting going with the variance,” former board member Elise Sloan said during the meeting.
During public comment, Wildasin’s neighbor Pamela Holcombe expressed her opposition to the board allowing the chickens, despite being an animal lover and member of the Florida Bar Companion Animal committee.
“The Beach is very small, we have very dense living arrangements, especially on the letter streets,” Holcombe told board members. “What is being described here is a therapeutic activity, this would not qualify under the Fair Housing Act.”
The board voted 7-0 to approve the request “based on the unique circumstances set forth by the applicant,” but deny the variance and issue Wildasin a refund for her $407 application fee. The board decided that classifying it as a request instead of a variance ensured that the exception would only be applied to Wildasin, not any other residents or future homeowners.
But within 30 days, Holcombe appealed the decision, arguing that the board did not receive the proper documentation for an Emotional Support Animal and that the application fails to meet the requirements of the Fair Housing Act.
Now the case will be brought before the City Commission at its regular meeting Monday, where commissioners will decide whether to support or reverse the PZB’s decision.
According to a memo to commissioners from City Manager Max Royle, the issue is that the city’s Land Development Regulations don’t have a provision for approving an exception to its regulations. Former PZB member Jane West pointed out in the meeting that she had never dealt with a request like this before.
“You are not to reweigh the evidence but are to ’decide only whether any reasonable construction of the evidence’ supports the Planning Board's decision,” the memo reads.
Wildasin said Holcomb’s house is not directly next to hers, and the three neighbors surrounding her home are vocal in their support for Cole’s chickens. She said that if someone knew what their family had been through, they would understand.
“I would not be sitting here, as a mom, fighting over a chicken if it wasn’t going to help my son. I’m his biggest advocate and supporter and I’ve gone through a whole lot,” she said. “I will fight for him until the end, that’s for sure.”
This story originally published to staugustine.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.