Here is the car of the future. The GM Hy-Wire is an hydrogen powered car with nothing but water as emissions. The car is powered by a computer. Now, if I just had 5 million. GM says 10-20 years for this car. Fantastic.
Purchasing a few laying hens is often the first in a series of changes in the family’s life that enables them to live a more sustainable lifestyle. It’s not surprising that urban hen owners also have been the first to run headlong into various city laws and ordinances that not only restrict or prohibit keeping hens, but also serve up hefty fines for doing so. While animal control ordinance infractions generally carry reasonable fines, zoning ordinances and misdemeanor offense penalties are more rigorous. Large fines and even jail time and can be levied on the homeowner if keeping chickens runs afowl of city codes. While most urban chicken keepers are eager to comply with local laws and work with city officials, misinformation, outdated city documents and websites, and conflicting ordinances can land the homeowner in hot water, and a lot of it.
Super Chick Exiled in Great Falls, Montana
Charles Bocock and his wife, Cheryl Reichert, live in Great Falls, Montana. They have long been participants in sustainable living and their home boasts solar panels, a hybrid car and organic gardens. Charles, who is a master gardener, wanted chicken droppings for his compost pile.
“I knew that chicken manure would really keep my compost pile going.” commented Charles, “My wife loved the eggs and enjoyed keeping the hens. It was a win-win for us.”
The couple visited city hall and were given a copy of an ordinance that vaguely restricted livestock animals. They were reassured by the city staff that chickens were not livestock and that lots of people in Great Falls had them. After receiving verbal approval from their neighborhood association, Cheryl and Charles attempted to hatch Welsummer eggs in their basement. The lone hatchling was dubbed Super Chick and soon five more Welsummer chicks were purchased to complete the flock. Charles built a coop under the deck behind a six foot privacy fence where the hens lived for nearly two years.
Then in late 2009, Cheryl and Charles received a knock at the door. It was a city worker with papers stating that they had to get rid of their hens or face a misdemeanor charge with penalties fines of up to $500 and/or 6 months in jail per chicken per day. They were told that the city attorney had interpreted “livestock” in the city ordinance code to include chickens.
“That’s three years per day!” exclaimed Charles, “That’s more than most murderers get.”
Mom Gets Mixed Messages in John’s Creek, Georgia
Martha Mellon and her three boys found themselves in a similar situation in John’s Creek, Georgia. She too had researched the animal control ordinances before she purchased 12 hens for her one acre suburban lot. She hoped to provide healthy eggs for her children and give the excess to the neighbors. She was pleased to learn that chickens were legal in John’s Creek and found an animal control ordinance that specified the coop be placed at least 100 feet from any nearest neighbor. Martha eagerly built an elaborate coop with a covered run 117 feet from her nearest neighbor.
“I used to set lawn chairs down there by the coop.” Martha remembers, “I used to get up before dawn and sit down there with my coffee and watch them greet the day.”
From January through July the pullets lived without incident at Martha’s home. Then Martha too received a knock at the door. A city zoning officer informed Martha that she was in violation of a zoning ordinance that stated chicken coops must be at least 200 feet away from the nearest neighbor. When Martha inquired about the conflicting animal control ordinance the zoning officer said that he was only enforcing the zoning ordinance. It turned out that John’s Creek had two laws with different set-back requirements for chicken coops. Zoning violations carry a $500 fine and/or 6 months in jail.
What’s a Jail Bird to Do?
Cheryl Reichert and Charles Bocock quickly loaned out their contraband hens to a friend who owns a farm, but they aren’t giving up on their exiled friends. They have taken steps to educate the community of Great Falls and work with the city to change the animal control ordinance. They have joined with neighbors to create an organization called Citizens for Legalizing Urban Chickens (CLUC), created a Web site (www.cluc.org), gathered hundreds of signatures and spent time talking with city commissioners.
“We decided we wanted to do this the right way and change the laws.” says Charles.
CLUC is also working with the City Planning Director, Michael Haynes, and together they have developed a draft hen ordinance based on other ordinances in neighboring communities.
“We have a draft ordinance that is ready to go to the Planning Board,” says Michael Haynes, “It has to go to the Planning Board before it can come up for a vote before the City Commissioners. Of course, the City Commissioners have to approve sending it to the Planning Board. We have a process.”
Martha Mellon believed that having two conflicting ordinances was bad policy and that the animal control ordinance should take precedence. She secured an attorney and took the city of John’s Creek to court.
“I felt that what I was doing was lawful, explained Martha, “I thought it was the right thing to do.”
However, the cost of continued litigation and the threat of jail time was more than Martha was ready to take on with her three children. In the end, she relocated her hens and settled the case with the city in exchange for the city dropping the zoning citation.
Is State Control the Answer?
As we watch city after city go through the same process of rehashing existing laws and constructing new ones regarding urban farming, some people believe that States should prevent local governments from regulating family food production. Senator Bobby Franklin, State Representative for Georgia’s 43rddistrict, has proposed “The Georgia Right to Grow Act” (or HB-2) to the current Georgia legislative session to do just that. The bill’s purpose is:
“to preempt certain local ordinances relating to production of agricultural or farm products; to protect the right to grow food crops and raise small animals on private property so long as such crops and animals are used for human consumption by the occupants, gardeners, or raisers and their households and not for commercial purposes.”
A similar bill (HB-842) that was introduced last session but not passed. Martha Mellon was one of the citizens who told her story to the subcommittee meeting on the bill last year.
The issue of the right to grow your own food is so compelling that many average citizens in Georgia registered themselves as lobbyists to help convince legislators to vote for HB-842. One such person is Rob Miller. Rob paid for his own lobbying privileges and spent the entire 40 day legislative session in Atlanta lobbying on personal liberties issues.
“We keep on trying to teach as many people as we can.” says Rob, “People should be able to be as self-sufficient as they can be.”
What Does the Future Hold?
While cities all across the nation are wrangling with their citizens about keeping urban hens and the Georgia legislature debates the passage of HB-2, folks like Martha, Cheryl and Charles and doing without their hens because they fear hefty fines and jail time for practicing their self-sustaining lifestyle. Who knows? Maybe the hens would rather be home in their city coops as well. As Cheryl Reichert puts it, “Super Chick is freezing her fanny on a bison ranch in Montana.”
Last Christmas I received a book by Eliot Coleman called Four-Season Harvest that talks about how they grow vegetables all year around using plastic greenhouses (hoophouses) and a single layer of floating row cover in the coldest months. Eliot and his wife, Barbara Damrosch, live in Maine in zone 5 which is the same zone as in Cedar Rapids, so I was compelled to do my own four-seasons experiment in my backyard this winter. I started with a small greenhouse (6x8) that I bought at Menard's in March that was on sale from the previous season. It was $89 with a simple metal tubing/plastic construction that didn't take my husband long to put up at all. We erected the greenhouse over the existing garden in a location that receives the most sunlight during the winter in late September after the pole beans and tomatoes were removed. We planted some mesclun mix lettuce, spinach and mache to see how they would do.
We harvested the lettuces early in the season and they supplied us until about November. In early December, we thinned out the spinach which was baby spinach size. Unfortunately, the growth in the spinach stopped and now we are left with spinach too small to harvest. But it is still green and unfrozen! A tremendous thing since the temperatures have already dropped below zero degrees on many occasions. The mache or corn salad seems to enjoy the cool temperatures and I swear is still growing. So far, so good. Hopefully, the small spinach will begin to grow again in early spring and we'll have spinach salad in March. Note to self for next year: Plant earlier so plants are bigger before the temperatures dip into the 20s.
After a holiday immersed in consumerism, I like to take a personal assessment and see how I'm doing toward my goal of greener living. Did I purchase less than last year? Did I avoid gifts that were over-packaged and over-wrapped? As usual, there was progress and room for improvement.
More items were purchased locally: I tried to give a "Taste of Iowa" this year to relatives far away. I purchased food items and soaps from local sellers to minimize packaging and support the local economy.
Less wrapping paper: I used much less wrapping paper this year and so did my kids! Imagine my pride when my grown children arrived with recyclable paper bags and cloth wrapping around their gifts. At the end of the day, we had one small bag of paper that was not recyclable to throw away. A big improvement over the extra-super sized bags of trimmings we used to throw away each Christmas.
Areas to improve
I purchased more on-line this year than ever before, and so came double wrapping with piles of Amazon boxes. In my defense, I always request that they combine the items into one shipment (doesn't always mean that they do:-(
I used more paper than I wanted to because I couldn't find paper bags big enough. One commenter on the NYTimes blog had an interesting idea that I think I'll adopt next year.
"Wrapping paper is NOT needed! Several years ago my mother and I bought a bunch of holiday fabric and sewed simple bags out of it in many sizes (cut the tops with pinking shears so you don't have to hem.) We use these bags year after year and they always look great (just tie the top with pretty cloth ribbons that you can re use also.) they are also very easy to store compared to paper. I just fold them up and stick them in a gift bag in my closet. Doesn't matter if they get mashed. This cuts down on our holiday trash considerably." Relizabeth from Norfolk, VA. Green blog NYTimes
How did your left-over packaging stack up to last year?
My recent article in Hobby Farms - For farmers ready to take their agriculture skills to the next level, the U.S. Peace Corps offers the opportunity to teach farming in developing countries.
(Gary Slaats, a senior recruitment specialist from the Peace Corps, contacted me and wants to use the article as recruitment material. How cool! Thanks, Gary, and all those farmers who spend time sharing their skills and promoting peace in other countries.)
Sorry that I haven't had much time to write here folks. I've working on my 7th article for Urban Farm and Hobby Farms magazines in the last two months. Very fun and challenging but doesn't leave me much free time. Here's the latest about keeping your backyard eggs safe from salmonella.
Thanks to Brad Pitt and his associates at the Make It Right Foundation for helping to rebuild a devasted portion of New Orleans in a green and sustainable way. Perhaps after this project, he can come to Cedar Rapids to help us rebuild flood ravaged areas of our city.