Shadowproof

Food Sunday: The Local Politics of Backyard Chickens

My plan to get backyard chickens was going well until one day, a few months ago, when my boyfriend said, "And we’ll have to make sure it’s legal of course." I laughed and replied, "Oh, it isn’t legal. We’ll be joining the chicken underground." No, we won’t, actually. My boyfriend doesn’t want to break the law. So off we went to get the law changed.

Our story isn’t at all unique, actually. These days, there’s a HUGE movement around the country for urbanites and suburbanites to keep backyard chickens. Chickens provide eggs, eat kitchen scraps, weeds, and bugs, and their poop is high quality fertilizer in the garden. Plus, they are fun! According to Mother Earth News, pasture-raised chickens produce eggs with less cholesterol, better fats, and more vitamins than the eggs you get at the store (even the free range expensive ones). The key is allowing your chickens to forage for grass and bugs in addition to their chicken feed. That was my main reason for wanting chickens (and, I’ll admit, I’m an animal loving NUT and I totally want some chickens as pets). My boyfriend is more excited about the chickens because of the learning experience and fun they will provide for his kids.

Portland, OR and Madison, WI famously allow backyard chickens. Madison residents even have a documentary on their efforts to legalize chickens (Mad City Chickens). Other cities around the nation are constantly adding themselves to the list of chicken-friendly cities. Here’s my story and some info I’ve learned on what to do if your city does not yet allow chickens.

Step one is finding out if chickens are legal, and that requires some detective work in your municipal code. You can probably find it online by Googling it, and with luck it will have a search function so you don’t need to read the entire thing. Search on terms like "hens" "chickens" "poultry" and "fowl." In the municipal codes I’ve looked at, there are two important sections to read to find out if chickens are legal. The first one is often called Animals and it details which animals are allowed and prohibited in your city. In my city’s code, they outlaw animals that are noisy or dangerous – including roosters. Hens, so far, are okay.

The second section to read is called Zoning. You need to find out whether residential zones allow hens and whether there are requirements such as keeping them in a well-maintained coop or keeping them a certain number of feet from your nearest neighbor. Often this is contained in a subsection called Permitted Uses. Unfortunately for me, the largest residential zones in my city (lots over 1/3 acre in a semi-rural area) are the only ones that can have chickens. In my zone, we can only have "ordinary housepets" (a definition that specifically does NOT include poultry) plus pot-bellied pigs and homing pigeons. (There are a number of backyard chicken websites that list the chicken laws in a number of cities nationally, but I’ve found that these lists aren’t always accurate.)

If chickens are legal, you’re golden. I wrote up a post on my blog with some initial planning details for getting chickens but in short, you’ll need to decide which breeds you want, whether you want to get eggs, day-old chicks, or adult hens, and you’ll need to build or buy a coop. Also consider what you will do if you order eggs or day-old chicks and some of your "hens" grow up to be roosters. Will you eat them? Give them to a local farm? Getting roosters when you want hens is a distinct possibility and it’s best not to abandon your roosters or give them to an animal shelter, as some people do.

If chickens aren’t legal, you have some work to do. Of course, you might decide to just get some chickens anyway. But if you want your chickens to be legal, there’s a lot of advice out there on the web, and I’ll add my two cents here. I began by attending a city council meeting and making a public comment. This probably wasn’t the best way to start (because a public comment doesn’t lead to any follow up) but it got the ball rolling because the city planner was at the meeting and he spoke to me after my comment, telling me how to actually get my item onto a city council agenda. He told me to write the city a letter with my request, which I did (you can see the letter here). My letter was probably unnecessarily long and detailed, but I wanted to make sure I had done everything in my power to give the city reasons why they should legalize chickens.

We got onto the city council meeting agenda for December 8, this past week. A few days before, the agenda appeared online along with a "staff recommendation" to table our request for legalizing chickens. The reasoning was unclear at first, until we went to the city council meeting. Cities in California each have a General Plan which is updated about once a decade, and the General Plan governs zoning (it doesn’t specify zoning, but zoning laws cannot disobey the General Plan). Our city is on the brink of doing a General Plan update beginning next year and they wanted to address sustainability – including chickens – as part of that process. They felt that if they paid the required fees to the state (for analysis of environmental effects) and did the work to legalize chickens now, then they might end up doing double work and paying double costs if later, after the General Plan update, they found they were also going to (for example) legalize ducks. Thus, our issue was tabled. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we’re getting involved at the very start of the General Plan update process, so we can influence it to include some chicken-friendly language (I hope).

Our efforts to legalize chickens also helped us find a few other wannabe-chicken owners in our city and it generated some publicity in the San Diego newspaper. I’ve started a list of residents of our city who want to own chickens so we can coordinate in the future, and I’ve asked each of them to write a letter to the editor of the San Diego paper. If we can show that articles on backyard chickens generate a lot of readership then hopefully they will continue to cover it. My hope is that the publicity will keep the pressure on city council and will help other residents who want chickens to find us and organize with us. In fact, next time we have some action on the chicken issue, I’m going to contact the paper to see if they want to cover it. I’ve also encouraged others who want to own chickens to contact the members of city council and the mayor, and several people have done so.

My work so far in trying to legalize chickens has been quite an education. I recommend checking out my letter to the city for a LOT of chicken-related information that a city (or a chicken owner) might care about. For example, you do not need a rooster in order to get eggs. That was a question that was brought up by a member of the city council, and it’s a very important point to make if your city does not wish to allow roosters. As I’ve been chronicling my adventures in city politics on my blog, I’ve been contacted by chicken advocacy groups in other cities (often with names spelling very clever acronyms like the Campaign for Legalizing Urban Chicken Keeping, or CLUCK). I’ve also heard from those who oppose backyard chicken keeping – typically vegans – including Farm Sanctuary. Farm Sanctuary DOES bring up some very good points, even though I do not agree with their overall vegan stance. My method of dealing with unwanted roosters would be to eat them, which would solve the problem of overcrowding in animal sanctuaries caused by unwanted roosters. Obviously vegans aren’t down with that plan. I plan to continue writing about my chicken legalization efforts on my blog and perhaps – if we have some big news – on FDL too. Hopefully one of these days we will add our city to the growing list of cities that allows chickens, and then I can blog about my coop and my flock and my eggs!

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