Robert and Rose Linehan dig through well-kept documentation of zoning and permitting since they bought their property in 1982. Damon Howell/ Photo
Robert Linehan has been raising rabbits on his .69 acres for the past two years, and he says the county, which has issued the North Ridge Road resident three citations following complaints from neighbors, is singling him out and violating his constitutional rights.
Linehan claims after the county became aware of his rabbit operation they have threatened him over permitting and septic tank issues and have changed his zoning without his knowledge.
“The county is trying to cram something down people’s throat they don’t want,” said Linehan, who lives on the property with his wife Rose. “They want to make this like a gated community. We’ve always had chickens; we’ve always had gardens and rabbits. This is an infringement of my constitutional rights. We want to go on living the way we were brought up.”
The Linehan’s property is on a residential street just outside the city limits of Jasper. He has neighbors within shouting distance to the left and right of him and three directly across the street. The Progress featured Linehan in an article in late 2010 in which he told us he had 800 rabbits (including babies) on the property. In that article Linehan discussed his rabbit operation, “The Wacky Rabbit Ranch,” and how he feels rabbit farming is a viable alternative to chicken farming.
The rabbits are raised in small outbuildings where they are suspended in wire cages above the ground. Their fecal matter and urine fall to the ground below them. At that time, Linehan told us he sold the rabbits for meat and other biological matter such as blood plasma and brain tissue. Now Harvey is trying to breed and certify a rabbit that is disease resistant.
County Marshal Jim Harvey first visited the property in January of 2010 following neighbor complaints. “He had that manure all over his garden, and it just smelled awful,” said Harvey. “I asked him to put in a facility to store manure and transport and compost it.”
Following his visit, the Linehans built a pit with a cover and plowed the garden and put in a greenhouse, which they said was the only direction they received from Harvey.
But Harvey said the complaints continued to come in. “We have seven neighbors who have complained,” Harvey said. “That first time he had 50 to 60 rabbits. Little did we know he was going to increase the number of rabbits to 800, according to that article. When I read that, I knew we were going to have a problem. Then we started to get complaints again.”
The Linehans maintain that the flies on the property are not a result of their rabbits and that they are taking proper steps to control the odor.
They say the manure is picked up every three to four weeks and that they use an FDA approved deodorizer. They also say mealworms that occur in the manure as a result of the feed, decompose it to a point that there is no odor.
“Those flies are not coming from our property,” Linehan said. “And everything has been maintained and cleaned.”
On the day this reporter visited, no swarms of flies were visible, but it was a chilly day, and neighbors say the problem is worse in summer. There was an odor that was noticeable but not overpowering. But again, neighbors say it is mainly a problem in summer.
The second round of complaints began rolling in during April of 2011. Harvey produced several photos, dated May 2011, of mailboxes on Linehan’s street covered in flies.
Fred Warden lives directly across the street from the Linehans. Warden, one of the neighbors who complained to the county about the odor, moved to his property in 1979, three years before the Linehans moved in.
“You can’t hardly sit out here in the summertime without the flies taking the food out of your hands,” Warden said. He told us he has had a sour relationship with Linehan since Linehan shot his daughter’s cat three decades ago. “What makes him think he can raise all those rabbits on 3/4 of a acre? He’s an idiot, plain and simple. I’ve got a brand new pool and can’t go out there for the flies.”
After meeting with the county attorney and commissioner and Pickens County Planning and Development Director Joey Low about the matter, Harvey issued Linehan the three citations in April of 2011: failure to ensure that animals are controlled to prevent them from being a public nuisance; failure of animal owner to remove excrement; and domesticated animals disturbing the peace.
“All we wanted was for him to get rid of the stench and the flies,” Harvey said. “I didn’t want to have to write him a citation, but he didn’t take care of the problem.”
Low echoed Harvey’s claims. “When the complaints came in, we tried to work with him,” Low said. “That’s just not allowed under his zoning. He’s suburban residential. You can have up to 15 animals on rural residential, and that’s how it is now, but never on the suburban residential. That property’s just not big enough to raise animals. You can have them as pets, but he’s doing it to make money. Nobody here wants to stop him. We just don’t want him to do it in that area.”
But Linehan says he’s not running a commercial operation and says the county is the one that changed his zoning from RR to SR without his knowledge.
“This is not and never will be a commercial operation,” Linehan said. “It’s more of a hobby. We’re trying to do something decent here. We haven’t made the first dime on this. These rabbits don’t even pay for their own feed. My wife and I live on a fixed income, and if Social Security goes away, we want to be able to take care of ourselves.”
Again, in the original Progress article on Linehan, he said he had 800 rabbits on his property and was selling them for meat and biological matter.
When asked about the zoning issue, Low said the county did not arbitrarily change the Linehans’ zoning.
“The only legal way to change zoning is by the property owner initiating the process,” Low said.
Linehan then produced a printout of the online tax assessors office website QPublic, which showed his property zoning as RR on June 3, 2010.
When asked about this discrepancy, Low said he was unaware of any changes and went to speak with Pickens County Tax Assessor Roy Dobbs about the issue.
Low said Dobbs was not in the office but that after checking the property cards for 2010 and 2011 Linehan was, in fact, correct about the change in designation from RR to SR.
“Without Roy here I can’t be sure why that changed,” Low said. “There are no notes on the card indicating why the change was made, but just as a suspicion, I would suspect it was to correct an error. He is on .69 acres with city water, and that is too small to be rural residential.”
Low also noted that the county’s zoning ordinance was originally adopted in 2005. The county assigned zonings, but property owners had a 90-day window to request anything they wanted, “and they got whatever they wanted,” Low said. “But there are no notes here that indicate if [Linehan] made the request for RR, which there usually are.”
Low said he doesn’t believe there is anything on the books requiring that the county notify the property owner of a zoning change, “but that is something you would want to do if there was an error made,” he said.
According to Low, no matter which zoning Linehan has, RR or SR, it would not make Linehan’s rabbit operation legal.
“Livestock of 15 or less is permitted on rural residental,” Low said, “and not at all on suburban residential. Livestock of more than 100 is conditionally permitted on rural residental, but you have to go before the committee and get a conditional use permit. The zoning RR doesn’t make what he’s doing legal.”
County Marshal Harvey said that after he was called out to the property for the first time in January of 2010 other issues began to arise with the Linehans’ property.
“When I went out there in January, I found buildings and outbuildings without permits and not the right amount of setbacks.” Harvey said. “He’s got buildings four feet from the property line when they should be 15, and 11 structures out there, nine of which need permits and only one that has a permit.”
There is a primary residence, a mobile home, a very large two-story building used for storage, and a number of smaller outbuildings on the property.
“He thumbs his nose at authority and wants to just do want he wants with the buildings,” Harvey added, “and he wants us to excuse him. He’s illegal. He’s costing the county a lot of money and a lot of time. He tries to blame other neighbors on their road for having the same issues with their permits and buildings and tries to get us to look the other way, but we’re not getting complaints about his neighbors. We’re getting complaints about him.”
Linehan says, however, that he does have permits for the buildings he needs and that previous building inspectors for the county came to his property and approved the buildings in question.
“That other inspector a few years ago came out here and signed off on us,” Harvey said. “He told us these smaller buildings didn’t even have a foundation and asked why we needed permits anyway. They’re pole barns more or less, and one is a Carolina Carport. If the county wanted us to permit all of these buildings, why didn’t they tell us originally? And the house we live in, which they say doesn’t have a permit, does. They won’t recognize the documentation. The county has been out here and told us we were going to have to bulldoze one of our buildings, and that’s not right.”
Harvey showed us a copy of a building permit issued to him by Pickens County on March 21, 2006, the same year his house was built. The permit issued was for a house.
Linehan’s neighbor, Warden, says he is also unhappy with the way the Linehans’ lot looks. “It looks awful and cluttered with all those buildings,” he said. “My wife, before she died, said we couldn’t sell this place now if we wanted to.” When asked what Linehan could do that would satisfy him, Warden said, “What would make me happy? It’d make me happy if he moved.”
Linehan says the neighbors have also complained to the tax board after the Linehans built a fence, Victorian garden and blue shed. “They said we made improvements, and property value should be increased,” he said. “So the property was reevaluated five times, and our value went up over a fence and some paint. That’s ridiculous.”
Now the Linehans are waiting for their court date for the three county citations, which has been postponed numerous times.
“My attorney is working with the county attorney, and they keep pushing it back,” Linehan said. “We need to prove that they are violating my right to life. We’ve had chicken coops out here before and 120 chickens. I’ll take this thing all the way to the state if I need to. This is how we were brought up to live, and if everything in the economy goes to hell, I’ll be damned if I’ll give them one rabbit leg.”