The Nowakowski family's flock of seven ducks is, for them, no different than the two dogs they keep as family pets.
Wendy Nowakowski, 44, called the ducks into the living room of her Bel Air South home Monday morning, and they raced toward the bits of bread in her hand, quacking excitedly. They jostled for position as they gobbled the bread.
After feeding time ended, Nowakowski sent the ducks back outside, and Zoe, a white Pekin breed who is the oldest and largest of the flock, honked commands as she herded the brood together.
Nowakowski said her family has had domesticated ducks on their property for about eight years, and she noted they are similar to breeds Harford County residents can find gathered at any local pond.
"These ducks are pretty much the same, only they have become attached to our family," she said.
A county zoning hearing examiner, however, ruled last month that the family cannot keep their flock at its current size on their Lake Drive property because a lot must be at least two acres for a property owner to keep and raise livestock such as ducks, according to the Harford zoning code.
The Nowakowskis' lot is 1.98 acres.
"They are not allowed by Code to raise farm animals on this property," Zoning Hearing Examiner Robert Kahoe Jr. wrote in his Feb. 27 report. "No unusual aspect of their property contributed to this result, and there is no justifiable reason to grant them relief from this prohibition."
The Nowakowskis have until Friday to file an appeal to Kahoe's decision, and Wendy said Monday that they plan to appeal.
"I am so close to the acreage," she said. "I'm 1.9, and I need two acres, and I live on Lake Drive."
The property is at the intersection of Route 924 and Lake Drive, and it has two stands of evergreen trees that screen it to the east along Route 924 and to the north between the Nowakowski property and a neighbor's land, according to the report.
Nowakowski said the ducks often shelter in the trees.
Nowakowski and her husband, Eric, 44, applied for two variances from the county, including one to allow a shed to remain within a 60-foot setback on the northeast section of the property because nowhere else would be a "pleasing and viable location," and a second variance to let the ducks stay.
"Our ducks are Pets and are not raised for profit," the Nowakowskis wrote in their application. "They have been a part of raising our children and in educating other children in our community regarding nature's life cycle."
The ducks have been featured in family life classes for elementary school students in Harford County, and the family puts them on display during the annual county agricultural fair, Wendy Nowakowski said.
The family has also received a permit from the Maryland Department of Agriculture to keep them.
The flock consisted of eight ducks – Zoe, Sunny, Maisy, LouLou, Claire, Fletcher, Romeo and Priscilla – when the zoning hearing was held in November 2014. Nowakowski said Priscilla died in December, however, when a hawk snatched her.
The family has raised three generations of ducks, but they have lost several to predators such as hawks and foxes.
Wendy Nowakowski said she obtained them to educate her children, who are now 12 and 16 years old, about the natural world. They wanted to train the ducks to travel from their property to a neighborhood pond and back.
"At night, we would call their name and they would come back, like a dog," she said.
Nowakowski testified during the zoning hearing that the ducks are like family pets, and they are friendly with her children and neighborhood children, and they have educational value.
Anthony McClune, Harford County's former deputy planning and zoning director, testified that a lot in the R2 urban residential zone must be at least two acres, if the property owners want to raise livestock, and he recommended that the variance application be denied.
"The Applicants have not provided sufficient justification related to size or configuration of the subject property to warrant the granting of a variance," according to the planning staff report on the case.
McClune noted that the family could keep up to five ducks, since planning and zoning officials "prior to 2008, had taken the position that the Code allowed 5 domestic animals on a residentially zoned lot of less than two acres," according to Kahoe's report.
"While the Code now provides otherwise, the Department believes that the Applicants would qualify to maintain 5 ducks as a non-conforming use," Kahoe continued.
Kahoe approved the variance to keep the shed where it is, but he denied the variance for the ducks.
Nowakowski said she will fight to keep all of her family's ducks. She said her property is "literally where they seek refuge from predators."
"If I put them at Bynum Pond, they're not going to know where to go," she said.