HILTON HEAD

Hilton Head man to face 17 counts of animal cruelty in trial next month

bheffernan@islandpacket.comJanuary 10, 2013 

A native islander whose family has farmed on Hilton Head Island for generations faces 17 new allegations of misdemeanor animal cruelty.

And Michael Cohen Jr. and his father could face additional penalties for failing to follow a municipal court's instructions following convictions on similar charges in 2011.

Their case is headed to court next month and pits Cohen Jr. and Michael Cohen Sr. against residents of the nearby Villas of Summerfield condominium complex off Spanish Wells Road. Residents have complained about the property's appearances and noise from animals, including horses, roosters, pigs, cows and dogs.

However, Cohen Jr.'s lawyer says the farm was there first, and the complaints are really an effort to drive the family from the property. The animals are not being mistreated; they were rescued and are being nursed back to health, said attorney Roberts Vaux.

The Cohens made a similar argument in 2011 but were found guilty of 12 counts of animal cruelty. Their fines were reduced to $55 per count on the condition that the two improve the animals' health and shelter and provide evidence of their work to the court.

The Cohens have not provided such proof, according to court records.

Cohen Jr.'s trial for the new citations originally was scheduled for Jan. 4 in Hilton Head Island Municipal Court. It was postponed until Feb. 15. It is expected to be followed by a hearing to determine if the father and son failed to meet the requirements of their previous convictions.

The most recent animal-cruelty citations were filed Nov. 28 and allege that drinking water was dirty or not available for horses, dogs and pigs, and that some of the animals on the property did not have adequate shelter. Many of the animals appeared thin and timid, a Beaufort County Sheriff's Office incident report stated. Cohen Jr. also faces a citation for feeding garbage to pigs, according to court records, and he was cited for not having rabies tags for the animals.

The citations came after a Nov. 27 complaint to a Town of Hilton Head code enforcement officer from a resident of the condos. The officer reported the conditions of the animals to Beaufort County Animal Control, which later issued the citations. No town-code citations were issued because the property is zoned for agricultural use, according to town maps.

Attorney Vaux said the animal cruelty citations stem from misunderstandings about the Cohens' farming practices.

The animals were being treated by a veterinarian at Equine Medical Services, according to Vaux.

Equine Medical Services would not say if it was treating any of the animals because of doctor-patient confidentiality.

The case is not really about animal mistreatment, Vaux said. "I think it is an attempt to get the Cohens off of their property."

"It is a sad, sad situation when a family that has been living and farming on land for 100-plus years all of a sudden are trying to be run out of town and run out of business and run off of their land because they've got dogs and roosters," he said. "They've been having them since most white people from the South weren't on Hilton Head."

The Cohens have lived on the property for four or five generations, according to Vaux.

Cohen Sr. declined to comment. Attempts to reach his son this week were unsuccessful.

The family also is known for its marsh tacky horses. Last March, both men were threatened with arrest when they tried to enter unregistered horses in the Gullah Celebration's Marsh Tacky Run on Coligny Beach.

Several complaints about the Cohen farm have been made to the town and the Sheriff's Office by Villas residents. The condos were built in 2004 beside the Cohen property.

Those complaints included outdoor burning, unsightly property and noisy farm animals.

One condominium is about 30 feet from the farm. Three others are about 150 feet from the 6-foot-tall wooden fence separating the properties.

None of the noise complaints has warranted a citation, according to town attorney Brian Hulbert and the Sheriff's Office.

A representative from the Villas of Summerfield declined to comment.

Cohen Jr. has filed a complaint of his own with the Sheriff's Office -- he called for officers at about 8 a.m. Dec. 30 to report that a man threw a substance into a water bowl set out for the animals; the substance turned the water greenish-blue.

The suspect -- described as a white male wearing a white shirt and brown shorts -- ran toward the Summerfield condos after Cohen yelled at him, the report said.

Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Sgt. Robin McIntosh said the incident is being investigated, and samples taken from the water bowls will be tested for poison.

Preliminary tests have shown the water contained a poisonous substance, according to Hulbert.

Much of the Cohens' legal problems stem from continuing to adhere to their rural heritage while living next to a housing development that is about 10 years old, Hulbert said.

"I wouldn't want to move to Hilton Head to live next to a farm. ... I can certainly understand why they're complaining," Hulbert said, referring to the condo residents. "But at the same token, the Cohens have had that farm their entire life."

Hulbert, who is assisting Animal Control Officer Brittany Chaplin in prosecuting the cases, said the rabies citations are expected to be dismissed because the Cohens have proof the animals have been inoculated.

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