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GUILTY: Man Sentenced To Jail For Keeping Chickens

randy zeilinger backyard chickens

A Michigan man was recently charged with a criminal offense and sentenced to jail for keeping chickens in his Garden City backyard.  Even though Judge Richard L. Hammer Jr. was reasonable enough to suspend the jail time, this frivolous trial still clogged up the court system and left Randy Zeilinger with a series of hefty trail-related expenses to pay.

The indictment also carried a six-moth probation period, just in case Randy felt the urge to gather his own organic eggs once again. Randy’s case was initially a mere code violation situation but was upgraded to a criminal complaint in February.

The fifty-three-year-old man describes himself as just a “regular guy” who enjoys both wildlife and nature. Before he felt forced to get rid of his chickens, he liked watching them run around his backyard, clucking and taking care of bugs and slugs. Randy also enjoyed the “creamy” eggs he collected each morning for breakfast. Like many organic food lovers and homesteading families, Zeilinger firmly believes the eggs offered by his backyard chickens were far better than the ones available at the local grocery store.

Selling the chicken eggs was Randy’s only source of income. Since he cannot pay the $905 fine ordered by the court, he will likely find himself behind bars soon.

The fussy neighbor who filed relentless complaints about Zeilinger’s earth-friendly and prepping habits for many years prompted the chicken charges and the ordinance violation letters which continue to this day. Randy should have been covered by Michigan’s Right to Farm Act, but the law failed to protect him from the incessant visits by Garden City ordinance officers.

Just days after he was convicted in a criminal trial for once keeping chickens in his backyard, Randy began getting violation letters in the mail. The letters cited peeling garage paint, a “vandalized” porch, and the keeping of a wild skunk. An ordinance officer reportedly indicated to Zeilinger that he would be a frequent visitor to his property and more than willing to write multiple violation tickets. Randy fully expects to endure bi-monthly appearances in front of the judge over the alleged ordinance violations.

Randy had this to say about his ongoing legal woes:

“I purchased my home in 2000. I started moving in around March of the same year. I moved my bee hives at the same time and was immediately confronted by a neighbor who called the police.  The attending officer said that bees were OK if I kept them in my own yard. In hind sight, I should have noted the complaint and resulting dialog. However, I thought that I was within my rights based on the Michigan state law, often referred to as the Right to Farm Act.”

Zeilinger went on to state that over the course of the past decade the same neighbor lodged so many complaints against him that city officials acknowledged the issues were entirely baseless – chalking the situation up to “just one of those neighbors.”

In 2009, the collective mindset regarding the neighbor’s complaints began to change for some unknown reason.  During that year, Randy bought a duck and some chickens. He kept them for a year and ultimately opted to rehome the duck due to the neighbor’s complaints. In 2012, the irrational neighbor made a fuss over the chickens because Randy did not have the woman’s permission to have the animals.

This handbook provides an introduction to key aspects of raising and breeding chickens.

The woman apparently also has issues with trees, ponds, and fish as well. She reportedly demanded that the city cut down a front yard tree, but they did not. Randy’s koi and frog pond remained a bone of contention as well. By the time the neighbor lady filed a formal complaint with the Garden City ordinance office, the chickens were long gone – yet he still was cited into court.

Zeilinger described the ongoing issue with the neighbor in his “How I Became An Outlaw” article:

“Her premise was that I never asked her permission to have chickens in my own private yard. She also made other demands of what I could or could not have within my own yard. Her reasoning was that they had lived here longer than I had and that I needed neighbor permission to take care of my own property and the things that were there.  So now I have a p****d off neighbor who calls the ordinance department to complain about chickens that she can’t see and insists on filing a legal complaint. Part of that complaint was that my chickens were harassing her dog through the fence.  Seriously? Anyway, the ordinance officer comes out for an inspection and sees no sign of chickens anywhere on the premises.  He did not see a chicken; he did not hear a chicken; he did not smell a chicken. But since I had spoken in favor of a chicken ordinance before the city council, he decided to issue a ticket based solely on the statement of a neighbor.”

When Judge Hammer sent Zeilinger to meet with city prosecutor Timothy L. Cronin in April, the elected official did not appear to understand the intent of the Right to Farm Act. Cronin reportedly told Randy that if he wanted to live on a farm, then he should move out of the city; the Garden City mayor was not in favor of having chickens in the city.

Zeilinger was allegedly told that he was not welcome in the city. He was also supposedly informed that if he continued to fight the matter in court, a compromise would not be reached and the prosecutor would make an example out of him.

Urban rooftop and community gardens are flourishing in many areas, and responsibly keeping chickens should be heralded as an extension of such self-reliant efforts. Should a man-made or natural disaster hit Garden City, it is folks like Randy who will still be able to put food on the table and aid others.

michigan right to farm actRandy did not back down and continued to speak in favor of chicken keeping at city council meetings while awaiting his court date. His trial date was repeatedly postponed. Garden City Observer reporter Sue Buck wrote about the ordinance violation battle. Several people who spoke in support of backyard chickens were also immediately slapped with code violation notices.

By the fall of 2012, Garden City police officers had been on Randy’s property several times after being called by the same neighbor. No charges were filed as a result of the visits. One anonymous complaint cited a noisy rooster on the property—Randy did not even own a rooster.

When the neighbor called to complain about a skunk found on her property, three police offices in two separate cruisers arrived on the scene. The law enforcement officers reportedly told Randy to do something about the skunk. The neighbor had reportedly told them that Zeilinger had set the wild animal loose in the yard to spray her.

The officers allegedly made Randy go get the skunk, which wound up being a baby so young its eyes were barely open. After “capturing” the little creature, Zeilinger was cited for keeping an unlicensed animal. He ultimately found a home for the baby skunk with a wildlife rehabilitator.

During the trial, many residents testified in defense of Zeilinger, noting that he was a good neighbor. No one who spoke during the hearing claimed the chickens had ever been a nuisance except the woman who had complained about Randy for many years.

Michigan’s Right to Farm Act reportedly supersedes local laws. Randy should never have been subjected to such intrusions on his freedoms and property rights. Local officials should have remained in compliance with the Right to Farm Act and supportive of the self-sufficient efforts.

An excerpt from the Right to Farm Act reads:

“Beginning June 1, 2000, except as otherwise provided in this section, it is the express legislative intent that this act preempt any local ordinance, regulation, or resolution that purports to extend or revise in any manner the provisions of this act or generally accepted agricultural and management practices developed under this act. Except as otherwise provided in this section, a local unit of government shall not enact, maintain, or enforce an ordinance, regulation, or resolution that conflicts in any manner with this act or generally accepted agricultural and management practices developed under this act. This section affirms your Michigan right to continuation business farming operating within generally accepted agricultural and management practices (GAAMPS) guidelines and supersedes any city laws that may forbid said farming.”

The local ordinance violation levied against Randy Zeilinger reads:

“Beginning June 1, 2000, except as otherwise provided in this section, it is the express legislative intent that this act preempt any local ordinance, regulation, or resolution that purports to extend or revise in any manner the provisions of this act or generally accepted agricultural and management practices developed under this act. Except as otherwise provided in this section, a local unit of government shall not enact, maintain, or enforce an ordinance, regulation, or resolution that conflicts in any manner with this act or generally accepted agricultural and management practices developed under this act. This section affirms your Michigan right to continuation business farming operating within generally accepted agricultural and management practices (GAAMPS) guidelines and supersedes any city laws that may forbid said farming.”

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