Here is the article in it's entirety that I wrote for Urban Farm Online magazine.
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 While most urban chicken keepers are eager to comply with local laws and work with city officials, misinformation, outdated city documents and websites, and conflicting ordinances can land the homeowner in hot water, and a lot of it.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.”