Zazu, the emu called a pet by its owners and a threat to “rip a man’s guts out” by a neighbor, can stay in a Raleigh Court backyard for at least 18 more months.
Zazu’s owners, Chelsea and Mike Powell, applied to the Roanoke Board of Zoning Appeals for a special exception permit to keep the 5-foot flightless bird after neighbors complained about it and the Powells were notified by the city it’s not permitted.
The couple got their wish Wednesday, but only temporarily, and only after a vigorous discussion and a 4-3 vote that seemed as likely to go against them as not.
Board member Roger Malouf called it a classic case of individual property rights versus those of the neighbors, who worried the year-old bird would be dangerous if it escaped, and would be loud and smelly even if it didn’t.
The Powells, who own local Molly Maid and Sani-Klean businesses, are fond of animals. They have a red fox named Vixie, a three-legged dog named Bo (sometimes BoBo) and a nameless chicken. They had more chickens, which are allowed in the city, but say they were killed by skunks. They got Zazu as a chick a year ago from a breeder near Danville after reading on the Internet that emus keep skunks away.
Their backyard menagerie has been a source of strife with neighbors, who have made repeated calls to animal control about the pets, though none resulted in charges, and have portrayed the Powells as both irresponsible caretakers and a general nuisance.
The special exception permit allows them to keep Zazu as an agricultural operation. They say they’ll use the bird’s feathers in crafts and eat the eggs if it turns out to be a female as they suspect, but acknowledge the bird is mainly a pet.
It cuddles with Bo and lays down and waits to be scratched when the Powells come home, said Chelsea Powell, 29, who called Zazu “one of the most laid-back animals” she’s ever owned.
Mike Powell, 39, noted that the animals are gentle enough to be common in petting zoos.
“Just because someone considers an emu a pet is no reason to make an exception,” argued Lee Surber, a Raleigh Court resident who spoke at the meeting. “I don’t think this is an animal that should be kept penned up in a small city backyard,” she said.
“It is so sad to see that emu tiptoe around the property,” said Sharon Hatfield, who lives next door to the Powells.
Her sympathy for Zazu doesn’t run deep, however. “It could rip a man’s guts out with its claws … it could kick and kill a child,” she said.
But she acknowledged on questioning from Malouf that the bird has yet to hurt anyone and that concerns about odor and noise haven’t materialized.
The conflicting information about the danger of the bird and the vagueness of its agricultural purpose left some board members in a quandary.
The agricultural use was “really kind of a stretch,” said Drew Kepley, who admitted being “torn.” He was concerned about the safety issue, and the right of neighbors to feel safe in their neighborhood.
Rob Logan noted that all of the concerns raised were only potential concerns.
“There are a lot of assumptions here,” echoed board Chairman Michael Woolwine.
Steven Trompeter, however, was of a clear mind. “It’s a farm animal in a non-farm animal neighborhood,” he said.
The Powells agreed to several conditions on the permit, including that they would only ever have one emu and no other livestock, that it would be kept in the backyard and in a smaller enclosure when they aren’t home, and that they can’t sell the bird’s meat or eggs.
For their comfort, the board agreed to add a condition requiring a 6-foot, solid wood privacy fence — the tallest allowed under city zoning, around the full perimeter of the backyard.
With Woolwine and Kepley still uncertain, Assistant City Attorney Steve Talevi noted that the board could also add a condition that the permit expire after a limited amount of time so the board could reconsider its decision later, after they knew more about how life with Zazu would play out.
Trompeter objected to that. “You’re putting the burden on the neighborhood to prove that it’s incompatible,” he said.
Malouf countered that it would give the board a chance to come back and “discuss incompatibility that’s real.”
That proved to be enough to tip Woolwine in favor giving Zazu an extended trial. He joined Malouf, Logan and Bryan Musselwhite in approving the permit, with Trompeter, Kepley and Terry Cundiff dissenting.
To keep Zazu long-term, the Powells must apply to extend the permit before it expires in September 2015.
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In other action, the board voted 6-1 to grant a special exception permit to Old Southwest resident River Laker to operate a bed and breakfast so he can continue rentals of his spare bedroom via the AirBnB.com website. The site connects homeowners and travelers to provide low-cost rentals for visitors and a little income for the hosts.
The city’s zoning ordinance currently doesn’t contemplate the kind of “sharing economy” business that takes place via AirBnB, so city staff suggested that a bed and breakfast permit is the closest thing.
The board vacillated during the meeting, with several member saying they were concerned about the impact on the neighborhood, though Laker said he averaged only two rentals a month and noted he doesn’t own a car so his guests can use his driveway.
Logan noted that while neighbors were informed of Laker’s application, no one came to speak against it.
Trompeter was skeptical of the whole idea that they would be permitting a legitimate business.
“I feel like we’re trapped here in a world we can’t see.”
For a time, the board considered adding conditions to the permit limiting Laker to a maximum of three guests at a time for no more than eight nights a month.
“I think it’s very dangerous territory when you stipulate how many people I can have in my home and for how long,” Laker said. That caused members who had supported the conditions to back away and the permit passed, with Trompeter as the lone vote against it.