Disabled Marine, neighbors at odds over his 20 support chickens
By DENISE CROSBY | Chicago Tribune | Published: June 7, 2018
MONTGOMERY, IL (Tribune News Service) — Brittany and Luke Villotti may be young suburbanites with chickens in their backyard. But don't confuse them with egg-loving hipsters who are part of a growing urban farming movement.
Luke Villotti is a disabled Marine with a note from the Veterans Administration stating these birds are "support animals" that help him cope with the depression and pain he faces on a constant basis, the result of injuries from rigorous training exercises while he was in the military.
From childhood experiences with chickens owned by family friends, said the 25-year-old husband and father of two children, he found the birds to be fun, loving and therapeutic. And so, when he had to leave the service after stress fractures on his spine, he turned to these fine feathered friends as a way of coping.
"I take care of them," added Villotti, who told me he has a degree in criminal justice and had planned a career in law enforcement until his injuries. "And they take care of me."
Some of his Montgomery neighbors, however, are crying "fowl."
That's because, they claim, unlike a growing list of other communities such as Batavia, Naperville and Elburn with backyard chicken ordinances, Montgomery does not have anything on the books that would allow residents to keep poultry on their property.
And even with that letter from his VA counselor that states these chickens can be important "support animals" for the disabled veteran, they question why the Villottis have 20 of them running around their fenced-in coop, which is a large Rubbermaid shed they insist is too close to the next door homeowner's property.
"Bottom line," says Travis Klostermann, who can see the coop from his home across the street, "he's breaking village rules. If you want to have farm animals, then you should live on a farm."
Klostermann and other neighbors, some of whom showed up at the most recent Village Board meeting to complain, have additional concerns — like odor, noise and disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control, salmonella cases from backyard chicken coops are, indeed, on the rise. And at the board meeting, next door neighbor Chad Davis said he'd already found chicken feathers in his yard.
But the Villottis insist none of the above complaints are valid: Their coop may not be made of wood, but it did pass inspection. And because their flock is so important to the family, including their little children, they insist they take exceptional care of the birds and are especially vigilant about cleanliness.
Indeed, last week when I visited their backyard, which is next to a large farm field, it was a warm and slightly windy afternoon. But even with my birds-eye view of the coop and its active and curious occupants, I could detect no odor. And the only chirping I heard was from the birds flying overhead.
The bark from their dog, or any other neighborhood canine, is louder than their chickens, the Villottis insist, and will produce more waste.
Still, dogs are allowed by the village ... chickens, not so much. Which is why there was such a spirited debate at the board meeting.
While at least one 4-H family showed up in support of the chickens, other Montgomery residents brought up negative claims, much of it garnered from social media, that suggested the family had 50-plus birds and was engaged in an underground egg- and poultry-selling operation.
At one point, Brittany told me, "We were trying to thin out the flock" by selling a few of them for $4 apiece, a minimal amount to help ensure the male birds were not going to be used for cockfighting, and hardly enough to cover the cost of feed.
The 30 extra chickens, she added, were babies hatched from eggs as part of her son's preschool project and have been sent back to the farm.
Armed with the letter from the VA, as well as information from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that spells out rules concerning assistance animals for people with disabilities, Luke Villotti is, himself, crying "fowl."
"I've gone out of my way," he said, "to provide letters to the village about the laws pertaining to the discrimination going on right now."
And the village is paying attention. Rich Young, director of community development for Montgomery, said he talked to Villotti on Thursday about culling the flock to the six recommended by the VA counselor. And based on surrounding communities — seven out of the 10 he surveyed allow for these hen houses — Young said village officials are now working to understand what "reasonable accommodations would be under the Fair Housing Act."
Restrictions, such as number limits, setbacks and other criteria will be worked out and presented to the board about this zoning situation that really is a different kind of bird.
While any decision will only be applied to this particular case, Young noted, "maybe in the future" this could lead to a backyard chicken ordinance like so many other municipalities have passed.
Still, Luke Villotti is upset he's being asked to get rid of most of his beloved birds, all of which have names, he noted, and "distinct personalities."
"He definitely has benefited since bringing them into his life," said his wife. "We spend a lot of time taking care of them. I love them as much as he does."
Brittany claims these complaints "don't even have to do with chickens at all" but are the result of neighborly feuds over children encroaching on property and late night noises that have resulted in their calls to police.
Which is why it comes as no surprise the couple says no matter what the village decides, they plan on putting their home on the market in a year and moving out of state, likely to a farm where they can have as many chickens as they want.
"We don't want to run people off, but the law is there for a reason," insisted Klostermann.
"If they had come to the neighbors and told us they were getting these support chickens and that it would be regulated, then maybe there would not have been such a big backlash."