By Erika Webb
Just because a little boy is diagnosed with autism, doesn't mean he doesn't have a voice.
Two-year-old JJ Hart has people speaking out on his behalf, and on behalf of his chickens -- to the point of censure.
Let's just start at the beginning -- the egg.
Last February Joe and Ashleigh Hart's son was officially diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, expressive speech and language delay, hypotonia and gross motor deficits, according to information Ms. Hart posted to the website, change.org.
First, they let JJ hold an egg. When he squeezed it and it broke, it was a lesson in cause and effect for JJ.
After researching autism and related disorders, the Harts determined that eating hormone-free and preservative-free foods might combat JJ's symptoms. Figuring they would be able to harvest truly organic eggs, they decided to get some chickens.
The Harts also learned that animals are often therapeutic for children with ASD. So, when JJ began affectionately calling the chickens his "ducks," his parents deemed the results positive.
But a complaint was made to code enforcement about the Harts having chickens on their one-acre DeBary property.
DeBary City Manager Dan Parrott said on Aug. 15 the Harts were sent a notice of violation of a city ordinance prohibiting the retention of livestock on residentially zoned property.
At a meeting on Oct. 10, the Code Enforcement Board gave the Harts 60 days to present their case, and special circumstances, to the DeBary City Council. They were given permission to request amendments to the ordinance.
Mr. Parrott said Councilman Hunt introduced an ordinance to allow a pilot program for backyard chickens at the Nov. 7 City Council meeting.
The proposed pilot program would allow families to keep three chickens, providing they purchase the $50 permits and keep the chickens in a clean, enclosed environment.
No more than seven permits will be issued, according to a myfoxorlando.com report.
Mr. Parrott said, if granted second reading and passage on Dec. 5, the pilot program would go into effect for one year.
"At the end of the year the council can renew and amend, tweak it -- or do nothing, in which case it will expire," he said.
For now, Mr. Parrott said as far as he knows, the Harts still have their chickens.
Throughout their ordeal the Harts have had support from many members of the community and from the mayor.
The whole situation has caused much squawking and feather ruffling in the small town, and the news traveled.
On Nov. 9, the story made it to the Tampa area where Bay News reported squabbling between DeBary's mayor, Bob Garcia, and some of the council members.
The report stated Mayor Garcia missed the Oct. 10 meeting, where the Harts were found by the council to be in violation of the city ordinance.
But he publicly called the council "heartless" and "arrogant," reportedly accusing the council of not wanting to hear anything Ms. Hart had to say.
It was then that heads turned from the chickens to the mayor.
"I implore this council to officially declare him censured, therefore rendering all his actions and statements, unilateral in nature thus not reflecting on this council or the City of DeBary," said Councilman Dan Hunt.
The council launched an investigation of the mayor's absence at three of 11 meetings. At the Nov. 7 council meeting Mayor Garcia cited a death in his family and two separate medical situations for those absences.
"It appears here that this council, for some apparent reason, the mayor has no rights to his opinion," said Mayor Garcia at the council meeting.
He said he feels his opinions "fall on deaf ears."
"I'm directing it (his opinion) to the issue before us and I still feel the same way in reference to Mrs. Hart," Mayor Garcia said.
He said he would continue to express his opinions, especially as they pertain to the concerns of residents.
"They come first," he said.
The mayor remains in office, but remains censored.
Lake Mary attorney Mark Nation, who represents Mr. and Mrs. Hart, said he suggested the council reverse the findings of the code violation, grant JJ a "reasonable accommodation under the Federal Fair Housing Act" or change the ordinance to allow for chickens.
The council chose the third option.
"Out of the three results, that's the best we could have asked for," Mr. Nation said.
But, he said, there are two elements of the pilot program he would like to see changed.
"Are the terms perfect? No," he said.
Mr. Nation said the number of chickens allowable should be "up to 10" and that there should be a permanent amendment to the ordinance, "not just a one-year pilot program."
On the other hand...
"I'm not worried because I think the citizens of the city of DeBary would rise up if this isn't adopted. They would strongly oppose any councilmember who does not support JJ keeping his chickens," Mr. Nation said.