OXFORD, Ga. — The Walden family of north Oxford has had an unusual past two weeks — even by the standards of a family with an autistic child.
An unidentified neighbor of the Waldens — who live in a neighborhood off Georgia Hwy. 81 — complained to Newton County Code Enforcement Sept. 7 about the farm animals the family was keeping on its half-acre yard.
Now, James Walden said the county codes enforcement office is requiring the family to file for a variance from zoning laws to keep one animal — a goat that is a legally certified emotional support animal for their son.
They also must pay to have their yard surveyed to determine its legal size — which is used to determine the number of animals that can be kept, he said.
However, Walden said the family was living “paycheck to paycheck,” cannot afford the county and surveying fees, and faces a $100 a day fine if the goat is not removed by Oct. 7.
The family is searching for an attorney who will work pro bono — at no charge — as they work to challenge the costly requirements, including a $350 fee for the variance and “thousands” for a licensed surveyor, Walden said.
“They keep wanting to throw loopholes (in the law) at us,” he said.
The family, who reside on a 0.63-acre lot, appears to be in compliance with the county zoning ordinance which states the “maximum number of large, hoofed livestock, including but not limited to cows, hogs, horses, and llamas, and large aviary species, such as emus, shall be equal to two animals per fenced acre.”
Walden said he did not believe the family would be receiving the same kind of attention if the emotional support animal was a dog or other traditional domestic animal.
“I feel they’re trying to make an example of us,” he said. “They’re trying to make it as hard as possible on us by bullying us.
“They don’t have any idea how hard it is to raise an autistic child.”
Newton County government spokesman Bryan Fazio acknowledged the codes enforcement department received the complaint and served the Waldens with a notice of violation on Sept. 7.
“Upon inspection, there were livestock animals on the property, which was zoned for single family residential,” Fazio said in a statement.
“We were notified Sept. 13 the (goat) is a support animal. At the time of the notice, we were not aware that an animal on the property was deemed an emotional support animal.
“We will give the resident the required 30 days before our officer completes a follow-up inspection and re-evaluate the situation at that time if needed,” he said.
James Walden is a former Newton County Sheriff’s Office detention officer who left his job after 15 years in 2020 to care for Kayden, 6, and the boy’s younger brother and sister. Their mother, Kim, is a longtime special education teacher in the Newton County School System.
The couple also kept pigs and chickens in the backyard of their Carole Drive home — as well as a goat named Lego — and Kayden was responsible for caring for them.
He said the family has always kept the yard area clean and free of animal waste that would cause odors.
Eventually, the goat became an emotional support animal to Kayden and helped him start developing socialization skills following years of being non-verbal, Walden said.
After the complaint, the family found homes for their two pigs and eight chickens because of the violation of county zoning laws in single-family neighborhoods. But they kept a goat named Lego for Kayden — who has been diagnosed with autism, developmental delays and bilateral hearing loss.
“I have given all of our paperwork to the county in regards to our certification and my son’s ID cards to show that Lego is his service animal,” he said.
However, Walden said Newton County officials have told him zoning codes supersede other laws in this case.
He said the couple posted a change.org petition online here that has received almost 2,200 signatures.
“We want to bring awareness that anyone with a disability can get a service or emotional support animal. We want them to help us and make this right.”