ISTACHATTA — Blame it on Martha Stewart.
About eight years ago, Jeri Atkinson heard Stewart talking about her pet chicken, and the Istachatta woman decided she wanted one, too.
Since then, one of the feathered fowl has evolved into as many as 55 at times as Mrs. Atkinson collected fancy versions of the standard farm staple.
But a seemingly benign "chicken hobby,'' as her husband calls it, has sparked a serious neighborhood rift.
The dispute spilled over before the Hernando County Commission last week.
Leon Atkinson, sporting the white beard that served him well in the past playing Santa Claus and an unassuming, "aw shucks" manner, pleaded his case Tuesday, asking commissioners to set aside a zoning law that prohibits farm animals on residential property — in this case Peterson Camp Road, near the Withlacoochee River on the north side of Istachatta.
Some people, he told commissioners, advised him that he should get a lawyer to plead his case, but he trusted that he could get his point across to the commission.
"I didn't know I could be this nervous over chickens,'' he said.
He thanked the elected officials for whatever they were about to do. What he alluded to, but didn't say, was that he knew what it was like to make decisions like the one facing the commission. Just how became obvious later, when a neighbor on the other side of the dispute pointed out that Atkinson was the former two-term mayor of Treasure Island in Pinellas County and knew a thing or two about land-use rules.
But this was different, Atkinson said.
"These are like our children,'' he told the commission. "My wife has named them for relatives, for neighbors, for children and grandchildren.''
In addition, "some will come when called'' while others stop so they can be picked up. "They're not dumb. But, like humans, some are smarter than others,'' Atkinson said.
As he talked, commissioners — more accustomed to hearing complaints about limerock road dust and attacks on wasteful government spending — let slip an occasional smile or chuckle.
Atkinson pointed out that everyone in the neighborhood, including those who turned the chickens in to county code enforcement, had eaten the delicious eggs produced by the all-female flock. Children had come to the yard to be educated about the birds. Bikers from the nearby Withlacoochee State Trail stop by and say hello to them.
Nearly all of the close neighbors signed a petition urging the commission to allow the chickens to stay. A parade of those neighbors came to the microphone to talk about how much they loved the birds. "Save the chickens,'' said one after speaking.
Another pointed out that cows live on the other side of the wire fence of the chickens' yard. The flock is part of the rural character that still makes Istachatta "special,'' said another.
"The chickens are so pampered,'' said neighbor Carol MacDonald, who described the cracked corn, the chicken feed and even the Cheerios fed to the birds at the end of the day to lead them back to the safety of their coop.
"The chickens are pure pets, and we'd like them to stay,'' she said.
Twelve-year-old Dalton Murphy, who lives next to the chickens, took time out from school, with a counselor's encouragement, and talked about how quiet the chickens are. He got a snicker from many in the audience when he said there was "no foul smell.''
"They're actually pretty funny to watch,'' he said.
But when Dalton's father, James Murphy, spoke next, the story began to turn. Murphy said wild birds made more noise than the chickens. He said the complaint about the chickens was a symptom of a deeper problem of "personal animosities'' from several neighbors.
It was a case of "let's go after the chickens,'' Murphy said.
The animosity stemmed from a lawsuit filed this year by Robert McIntyre, another high-profile Pinellas County resident who has riverfront property along Peterson Camp Road.
McIntyre, the CEO of Ditek Corp., a multimillion-dollar firm in Largo that makes surge detectors, sued Atkinson and many other residents of the neighborhood, trying to limit their access to the Withlacoochee River across his property, a lawsuit that is still winding its way through the Hernando courts.
Neighbor Mary Repper admitted that she had eaten the chicken eggs herself. But then she made friends with McIntyre, her next-door neighbor, and now she's afraid of Atkinson.
She didn't know before that the zoning prohibited chickens, but she was upset over what Atkinson does to protect his chickens. She said he had been shooting hawks and possibly a fox that were sizing up the meal potential of his wife's pets.
When another neighbor jokingly put up a sign on a vacant parcel nearby that read "Future Home of the National Hawk Breeders Association,'' she said Atkinson shot another hawk and hung it on the sign.
"From that moment on, I've been fearful,'' she said.
Hawks are protected under the federal migratory bird act, and Karen Parker of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said that incidents involving wildlife can be reported to the toll-free Wildlife Alert hotline at 1-888-404-3922.
McIntyre, past chairman of the Pinellas Education Foundation, urged the commissioners to follow their own zoning rules and said that Atkinson, because of his background, should have known better.
He asked about rules that would govern a chicken farm, questioned whether runoff from the droppings would have an impact on the river and mentioned that the county should require standard inoculations of the chickens.
As the board began to deliberate, Commissioner Dave Russell commented: "There are some issues that run much deeper than just chickens.''
But Russell wanted a way to "divide the baby,'' and the board worked to find a compromise that would settle the dispute and allow the birds to stay.
They found one.
They agreed that farm animals cannot be kept on property zoned residential. But they also agreed to grant an exception for the Atkinsons, allowing them to keep up to 55 chickens, but no roosters. They will ask the county Cooperative Extension Service to make sure the living conditions and health of the chickens are up to standards.
The compromise pleased the couple and most of the neighbors, although the chickens only get to stay as long as the Atkinsons live on the land.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.