Ben Bailin loves pigeons. The racing homer kind, mind you, not the wild ones sometimes called rats with wings.
No, Bailin's birds are "Thoroughbreds of the Air," capable of reaching speeds of 60 mph and returning home after traversing wing-numbing distances, at least according to pamphlets Bailin brought with him to Tuesday's County Commission meeting.
Bailin came to face angry neighbors and to fight a decision by the development department that would force the 76-year-old Brooklyn native, now living in Spring Hill, to get rid of his birds.
He came armed with a video presentation on racing homers that traced the history of their relationship with man to 5,000 B.C. The video described racing homers as creatures whose beautiful form is perfectly suited to their mission and as gregarious, but willing to risk death to protect their territory.
After the video, an emotional Bailin addressed commissioners.
"Nobody," he said, "will ever know what pigeons mean to somebody unless they've had them."
Bailin has eight breeding pairs who reside in a shed on his property. Their offspring are sent to pigeon people in such places as Louisiana and New York, who race the birds and send a portion of their earnings back to Bailin.
Neighbor Thomas Reichert, who lives across Drayton Drive from Bailin, is sick of the birds. The creatures produce foul smells and have an annoying habit of hanging out on roofs in the area, said the 55-year-old Reichert, whose mother lives next door to the pigeon lover.
"The smell is horrendous," Reichert said, adding that his mother "likes to sit on her lanai but she can't."
Development Services director Grant Tolbert explained that his department had sided with Reichert and other neighbors in the dispute because county ordinances prohibit agricultural activity in residential areas.
"If we were to allow this, it would mean domestic pigeons in every residential neighborhood in the county," Tolbert said.
Questions arose when commissioners and County Attorney Garth Coller began to ask in what way raising pigeons was an agricultural endeavor.
It involves cultivation of animals, those involved pointed out, but not for purposes of consumption.
"This is a hard one for legal," Coller said. "I think we have some very poorly written ordinances."
Commissioner Nancy Robinson strongly favored a strict interpretation of Tolbert's decision, willing only to let Bailin keep two breeding pairs. Commissioner Diane Rowden, who seemed to side with Bailin, tried to cut a deal with Robinson that would have allowed the pigeon keeper to hang on to four breeding pairs.
But Robinson would not budge.
In the end, Tolbert agreed to do some field research. His employees will spend some of the next several weeks going around to other pigeon keepers in the county to get a sense of how many birds constitute a nuisance, then get back to the commission.
"I'm satisfied," Bailin said. "Pigeons are not fowl."
_ Will Van Sant covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to vansantsptimes.com.