A family's pet goat becomes a cause celebre in Cecil County

One day last winter the Balunsats carried home a gangly baby goat. They named the fuzzy thing Snowbird, cradled her while she slurped a bottle and allowed her inside to snuggle under a heat lamp.

With Chesapeake City grass, hay and the occasional potato chip, Snowbird filled out into a handsome animal with a thick white coat, ridged horns that curl between her ears and lips that seem ever-pursed in an ironic smile. When she bleats "Meh, meh, meh," Lisa Balunsat — who will tell anyone she raised that goat as a child — hears, "Ma, Ma, Ma."

Cecil County officials mainly hear a zoning violation.

For months now the Balunsats and officials have engaged in a custody battle of sorts over Snowbird — the family wants her to stay, the county says she has to go because their lot is simply too small. After a winter of orders, ultimatums, hearings, petitions and tears, Craig Balunsat sued the county in federal court this month, saying he's not only constitutionally entitled to Snowbird, but by considering the animal differently than a dog or a cat, the county was discriminating against goat kind.

"The zoning law is not designed to deprive us of the kind of animal we want as a pet," Craig Balunsat says. "They can say it's animal husbandry, but that doesn't make it right."

The Balunsats' efforts to share their life with a goat leave them squarely — though unwittingly — in the middle of a growing national movement to erase the barnyard stigma from certain animals and welcome them into suburbs and even cities.

Advocates preach a preindustrial sensibility, hoping America can return to a time when people and the animals that helped sustain them coexisted without question.

It's the locavores who are pushing for change, craving their fresh eggs and their homemade chevre. Even as rural Cecil County attempts to hold the line between farm and homestead, cities as big as Seattle, Denver and San Francisco have decided goats are welcome neighbors.

Craig Balunsat is 47 years old, and, Lisa, his wife of eight years, is 49. They're a free-spirited, dreamy pair who met in Las Vegas. He had headed west on a mission to find himself. She claims she'd been dreaming about him for a year before they ever met.

They've made a home these last four years in a worn ranch house on Basil Avenue where the floors are unfinished and holiday lights stay pinned to the walls year-round. Though the couple has no children together, their grandchildren from previous relationships sometimes live with them, sharing the few rooms with a half-dozen sprightly Chihuahuas and about as many cats.

Last year's decision to spend a couple of hundred dollars on a goat — a deal arranged through a newspaper advertisement — stemmed from the couple's interest in Native American spirituality. By opening their home to a goat, they figured they'd be closer to nature, maybe even to God.

Living as they do in a rural district, their property abutting one expansive farm and sitting across the street from another, the Balunsats assumed theirs was a goat-friendly spot — until one day last fall when an inspector knocked on their door and shortly thereafter a letter on county letterhead arrived in the mail. It said the goat, along with the family's six hens and two ducks, had to go. Or else.

The family launched an appeal, an effort that caught the public's attention when Craig Balunsat leashed up Snowbird and began to sit with her, in protest, on the side of Highway 213. His granddaughters would join them some days on the sliver of scrub grass, holding signs they made with watercolors and glitter imploring passing motorists to help "Save Snowbird."

One sign showed a little girl crying blue marker tears. Another had a little bite out of the top — Snowbird's imprimatur.

It was mainly out there that the family collected about 200 signatures supporting their cause. But in the end, none of that held sway with the appeals board.

Zoning administrator Cliff Houston relates the county's position on Snowbird in the measured, tempered tone of someone who believes too much of his recent life has been spent discussing a goat.

What happened? He'll tell you. Someone called to anonymously complain. County officials responded, saw farm animals, noted the lot size and that was that.

"It's not an area," Houston says, "where there's a whole lot of give and take."

It didn't matter that the original complaint centered on the Balunsats' rooster, not the goat, or that the family has since gotten rid of the noisy bird. The family's insistence that Snowbird was a pet, not an instrument of animal husbandry, didn't matter either.

What mattered was that in Cecil County, since the law was written in 1979, anyone wishing to engage in animal husbandry, even in rural areas, must own at least one acre of land. The Balunsats' corner lot missed that mark by four-tenths of an acre. So, Houston says, they're out of luck and out of a goat.

The county has no written list of what is or isn't an "animal husbandry" animal. For lack of a refined definition, Houston says it's what strikes officials as farm-y — not unlike the way it's been said people know obscenity when they see it.

Cows are. Dogs aren't. Minihorses are. Rabbits aren't — but only indoor bunnies. Outside rabbits are. Unfortunately for Snowbird, goats, whether they sleep in pens or under someone's comforter, most definitely are.

Officials don't care if the animal in question isn't a working one, that no one is breeding it or that it's not making anyone money. Houston says the county has stuck to the rule as written, no exceptions, as long as he can recall.

In fact, he says a few years ago an Elkton family had to give up their two pygmy goats, having missed the acre cut-off by mere feet.

So the Balunsats sued. Their challenge, filed in federal court, argues that by denying them Snowbird, Cecil County is not only sapping their right to the pursuit of happiness but discriminating against goats by saying, essentially, they are less worthy of love in the eyes of the law than those of the canine or feline persuasion.

Unable to afford a lawyer, Craig Balunsat is representing himself. He spent hours on a threadbare recliner in his living room, searching the Internet for anything that might help his case, a fat book called "Understanding Business and Personal Law," within arm's reach. There he built the Free Snowbird website and made the goat her own Facebook page.

"I have no money, but what I do have is time," he says. "I can fight this."

And perhaps he can. Others have.

Urban farmers with a taste for creamy goat's milk have gotten a cloven hoof in the door in a number of big cities — most notably Seattle.

Largely because of a woman named Jennie Grant and her Goat Justice League, in the Emerald City, goats are no different from dogs or cats. People can have three, in any combination.

Grant uses her allotment to keep a pug and goats named Snowflake and Eloise on 4,000 square feet of property, not even a tenth of an acre. (She named her first goat Richard Conlin, after the city councilman who sponsored 2007's goat legalization bill.)

Denver voted last year to make it easier for people to have goats. Officials in Charlottesville, Va., did in 2010. Though Cecil County frowns upon chickens in homes, densely populated cities such as New York City, Chicago and Baltimore allow them.

"I get calls from people in rural areas frequently who are told to get rid of their goats," Grant says. "The places where it would make complete sense to have farm animals, they say, 'Oh no.'"

The sheep and goat specialist for University of Maryland extension says Cecil County's one-acre rule is arbitrary at best.

"It's just a number pulled out of the air. It means nothing," says Susan Schoenian. "All you need is a pen."

This country's long-established comfort with separating farms from homes is slowly, but surely eroding, she says. "This is coming. We're going back the other way. We're just at the tip of the iceberg."

Commissioner Robert Hodge sits on the Cecil County's five-member governing board, a decision-maker who happens to live on an 84-acre farm where he keeps an array of animals, everything from dogs and cats to cows, horses, goats and even zebras. He says he feels for the Balunsats ("I really do") but also says, pointedly, "I chose to live on a large parcel out in the middle of no place because I wanted to get away from everybody and not have these issues."

He's intrigued by the idea of a return to urban farming, but wonders aloud where one would draw the line. At goats? At pigs? At cows?

"If every other lot had a goat," he says. "Where would we be?"

He is, however, willing to entertain that question and suggests — as bluntly as he can — that someone in the Balunsat family would be smart to show up at Tuesday night's commission meeting where there will be an open mike and, you know, a forum where someone could ask the commissioners to consider adjusting the law.

(In case that wasn't hint enough, Hodge also points out that the commissioners are reachable by phone, fax and email.)

For now, Snowbird remains at home with the Balunsats. Craig Balunsat likes to sit with the goat on his back steps, running his hands through the animal's fur, slapping her gently on the haunches, letting her bite at the buttons of his cardigan.

The couple has had an offer from a nearby resort, offering to take Snowbird into their petting zoo if she ultimately has to go. The proprietors said the couple could visit her as much as they'd like.

Lisa Balunsat's eyes well up at the very thought.

"It's not the same," she says tearfully. Who's going to pet her? Who's going to scratch her tummy like I do? "That's my kid."


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