2017-07-13 / Front Page

Elmwood moves to evict poultry, including a duck with arthritis

By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff

An arthritic duck and an estimated two-dozen other birds residing on a 3.2-acre residential property in The Forest subdivision of Elmwood Township are at the heart of a neighborhood dispute that waddled into the Elmwood Township Board meeting this week.

Claiming that he represents at least 80 percent of his neighbors in the subdivision, Mike Moritz of Forest Drive in Elmwood Township appealed to the Township Board to cry “fowl” over what he and township officials agree is an obvious Zoning Ordinance violation in the neighborhood.

The Township Board responded by passing motions setting a legal path to have the poultry evicted.

The keeping of poultry and fowl in the township’s residential district requires at least four acres of land as well as a fenced-in area for the birds, according to township zoning administrator Sara Kopriva.

Birds being kept on the property in question are considered free-range, however.

Neighbors add that they are noisy, stinky, and a general nuisance.

“This may seem like a small thing to the Township Board,” said neighbor Carol Schmucker, one of several Forest Drive residents who offered public comment at the regular monthly Township Board meeting. “But it’s been a really big thing for us, and we hope you can do something about it.”

The neighbors have already done everything they could. They even hired well-known attorney Doug Fierberg of the Fierberg National Law Group based in Lake Leelanau and Washington, D.C. Fierberg wrote a strongly worded letter to the township, suggesting that “abatement of the nuisance” should be dealt with as soon as possible, “to preserve the balance of this season without the agitation and commotion caused by the unlawful keeping of these birds.”

Fierberg’s letter notes that residents “have made multiple requests in an amicable attempt to have the owners and occupants” of a home on Forest Drive comply with the zoning ordinance and the subdivision’s restrictive covenants, both of which prohibit the keeping of poultry and fowl.

Kopriva had also sent separate letters to the owners and occupants of the property. She said she hadn’t heard back from the owners, who apparently reside out-of-state.

But did hear from the occupants – who acknowledged they are keeping the birds.

A “Dr. and Mrs. Fischer,” who reside on the Forest Drive property they lease, wrote that the animals are pets. One of them, they wrote — an unnamed duck — was being treated for arthritis rather than being euthanized.

In addition, some of the birds had been used for “educational” purposes as part of a 4-H program and were therefore exempt from the zoning ordinance.

Kopriva said such exemptions don’t exist in the township Zoning Ordinance. When the Fischer’s advised Kopriva to call their attorney, Kopriva did – but heard nothing back after leaving a message for the attorney.

For more than a year, the Township Board has debated off-and-on whether to enact a Municipal Civil Infraction Ordinance that would allow the township zoning administrator or other authorized officials to issue “tickets” for zoning violations. Defendants could then take the issue before the county Magistrate for disposition as a civil matter and pay a fine rather than end up in District Court facing a criminal misdemeanor and possible jail time.

On at least two occasions before this week, the Township Board balked at enacting such an ordinance despite recommendations from Kopriva and a township attorney. It costs less for a township to enforce its ordinances as municipal civil infractions than to enforce them as criminal misdemeanors, but it’s also easier for officials to take legal action against citizens by issuing “tickets” instead of having to hire a lawyer and take an alleged offender to court.

At its meeting this week, the Elmwood Township Board voted 7-0 to adopt a municipal civil infraction ordinance. Because it will take a while for the new ordinance to go into effect under state law, the board also voted 7-0 to pursue misdemeanor charges against the owners of the poultry residing on Forest Drive.

Kopriva said she intended to ask the township attorney to file the appropriate court documents as soon as possible.

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