I Love You (left) and Big Bertha peek out of the fence at their Shadyside home. Photo by Ann Belser.

During the Covid shutdown, many people found new hobbies to pass the time in isolation.

There were those who hunkered down and binge-watched television series, those who perfected their bread making — leading to the 2020 yeast shortages — and the people who started raising chickens.

In Shadyside, Kellee Maize and Joey Rahimi went all in on chickens, keeping them inside for four months, and then bringing them out to their brand-new coop. But Maize and Rahimi’s coop is in their front yard on South Aiken Avenue and close to the sidewalk, which is a violation of city zoning.

Now it is up to the members of the Zoning Board of Adjustment to say if the chickens are going to have to fly the coop and take that coop, which is considered a structure too close to the lot line, with them.

While most appeals to the Zoning Board of Adjustment are presented by real estate attorneys who have architects in tow, complete with professional renderings and plot plans, Maize appeared before the board alone on Oct. 5, armed with nothing but a hand-drawn plot plan of her property in Shadyside and pictures of the chickens.

Even without paying an attorney and an architect, Rahimi explained in an interview after the hearing that the two eggs the family gets a day from the two chickens — during just the warmer months — work out to be tremendously expensive.

The family got yoked into chickens in April 2020, the second month of the pandemic. 

They don’t have a backyard because that is where they built a half-court indoor basketball court, and they used their side yard for an indoor pool that connects the two houses they bought on the street. 

The problem for Big Bertha, left, and I Love You, is their coop is too close to South Aiken Avenue. Pittsburgh zoning law requires that the coop must be 30 feet from the road, but theirs is about 10 feet from the sidewalk. Photo by Ann Belser.

That just left the front yard. One side of the front yard has a fenced-in area for their two dogs; on the other side is the chicken coop, which is also behind a fence.

The family, which in addition to the chickens and dogs, includes three children, started with six chicks. Rahimi explained that one of the six died as a chick.

Another turned out to be a rooster — they named him Henry — who had to be relocated because he was waking up the neighbors every morning at 5 a.m.

One got into the dog pen and was killed instantly by the family’s Samoyed. Another chicken was also bitten by the Samoyed, but emergency surgery saved her life. Rahimi said the bill for that was about $800, hence the high cost of the eggs. Although that chicken, Dixie, survived her injuries, she still died young.

That leaves the two remaining chickens, Big Bertha and I Love You.

In their youth, the chickens used to fly the coop all the time. 

“We’d find all six chickens on top of my truck in front of the house on Aiken,” Rahimi said.

They never did seem to cross South Aiken Avenue, so you can’t ask them why.

During the hearing for the variance, Maize said the woman who sold them the chicks explained that they had to be kept indoors for the first four or five months, which would give the family plenty of time to obtain permits, but the city’s permit counter was closed during the pandemic.

She checked with the contractor who was working on her house who said there shouldn’t be a problem housing the chickens.

“We’ve had many city inspectors here because we are doing some construction and nobody ever brought up anything,” Maize said. 

However, before getting the final inspection on the home’s construction, a city inspector told her the city did not allow a chicken coop in the front yard.

The zoning code calls for the structure to be set back 30 feet. The chicken coop, which is 6 feet high, 4 feet wide and 7 feet long, is just a few feet back from Aiken. Maize said the structure is mostly obscured from the road by vegetation.

I Love You the chicken may be forced to fly the coop because of a Pittsburgh zoning ordinance. Photo by Ann Belser.

During the hearing, Zoning Board member Alice Mitinger asked if Maize could show the zoning board members photos, and she did … of Big Bertha and I Love You. 

“Everybody loves them,” she said.

“I understand how you got here, but do you intend to always have two chickens?” Mitinger asked.

“No, we intend to have six; that’s the total number you’re allowed to have,” Maize replied.

“Except, I would say,” Mitinger said, “you are allowed to have them if you comply with the requirements, which is not a coop in the front yard.”

Maize said that when she looked into the requirements for chickens on the city’s website, there was no mention that they could not be in the front yard.

“Our intention is to keep them; they are like our babies,” she said. 

The family wants to add four more chickens because with two they don’t have enough eggs for a family of five. “I am just hoping an exception can be made,” Maize said.

As additional photos of the two hens came up, Mitinger made it clear she did not give a cluck.

“We’re more interested in the site than the chickens at this point,” Mitinger said.

The chickens have become neighborhood mascots to some, Rahimi said. There are neighbors who pick weeds on their walk to feed the chickens. Another painted their portraits. Then there was the jogger, who stopped to inquire what happened to Dixie, and cried when he found out she had died.

The couple has three children, an 8-year-old boy, a 3-year-old girl and a 9-month-old girl.

“The chickens allow the kids to pick them up and hold them,” Rahimi said, adding they don’t let adults handle them.

Rahimi said the family considered placing the coop on a deck behind the house, but there is no dirt for them to scratch and if they fell off it would be dangerous for the chickens.

“They aren’t going to enjoy life out on a deck,” he said.

If they lose their request for a variance, Rahimi said they would try to find a new home for Big Bertha and I Love You.

“We’re going to miss them for sure.”

Ann Belser is the owner of Print, a newspaper covering Pittsburgh's East End communities. After receiving a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she moved to Squirrel Hill and was a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 20 years where she covered local communities, county government, courts and business.