How Cities are Reacting to Backyard Chickens

Rules supporting or eliminating residential backyard chickens are being considered by many cities across the country.
Image: Coop Designed for Four Chickens | Stevens Point, Wisc.

Local government leaders are finding both support and opposition for keeping backyard chickens as part of a larger urban agricultural movement.

Around the country, people are getting back to their roots – literally – by maintaining farms or hobby farms at their residences, part of a growing urban agriculture movement that includes keeping backyard chickens.

Backyard farmers reap the health benefits of the pursuit, such as better nutrition and improved mental and physical health. In some cities, their products can be sold at markets.

But for those who want to keep chickens legally at home-based farms, “toil” often begins before yards are prepared, as there are many hoops through which to jump when keeping livestock. Many towns and cities have their own agricultural ordinances, which they are updating to support a growing aviculturist movement. Municipal lawmakers in other cities are finding flocks of opposition.

Enterprising Birds

Image: Yardbirds Backyard Chickens | Khrysti Smyth with Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone.

Image: Yardbirds Backyard Chickens | Khrysti Smyth with Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone.

In 2012, Somerville, Mass., was the first city in the state to pass an urban agriculture ordinance that “establishes formal guidelines for urban farming and gardening, the keeping of chickens and bees and other policies governing the growth and sale of agricultural products in an urban setting,” according to the city’s website.

“Somerville is small, progressive minded city,” said Khrysti Smyth, a former resident who helped write the ordinance. “It was an easy city to work with.”

Smyth had a vested interest in the ordinance — she keeps chickens — and since 2012, she has helped to write a half dozen more ordinances around the Boston area. She is known as “The Chickeness,” and through Yardbirds Backyard Chickens she promotes raising chickens and offers classes and seminars. She also has an academic background in wildlife ecology and works for the Trustees of Reservations as an operations manager in The Kitchen at the Boston Public Market, where Boston-area urban farmers have opportunities to sell backyard farm products.

Lawyers.com provides a primer on the legal issues one may encounter when growing or raising food at home. The website recommends researching local zoning laws and ordinances, development standards and building codes, private property restrictions and permits and licenses required, especially if small farm animals are involved.

For farmers who want to sell backyard bounties, there are other legal restrictions to consider. According to the website hobbyfarms.com, budding entrepreneurs should work within their state’s legal framework as well as follow local laws, like a 2014 Boston ordinance that created the framework for a transactional urban agriculture system.

Balancing Acts

More and more cities are coming around to supporting residential farming, keeping backyard chickens and addressing resident complaints in the process.

In 2016, the board of health in Columbus, Ohio, “approved new regulations and permit fees for barnyard animals in the city after revising them to address concerns of urban farmers raising chickens and other animals,” according to The Columbus Dispatch.

The city decided to update the rules as the popularity of backyard farming continued to grow. The city responded to 140 complaints of chickens and other animals in 2014 compared to 30 in 2010.”

After an eight-month push, the city of Edgewater, Colo., passed a 2016 ordinance allowing backyard chickens, goats and beehives, according to the Denver Post.

“Before the city council passed the new ordinance … in a 4-2 vote, Edgewater residents were in a state of legal limbo over keeping farm animals in backyards. City regulations didn’t technically allow for the raising of livestock — the animals weren’t even mentioned in the code book.”

In January, supervisors in Sacramento County, Calif., unanimously passed an agricultural ordinance allowing urban and suburban residents who legally grow and sell crops, keep bees and raise chickens and ducks at home.

“Proponents say the new legal framework will make life easier for small-scale farmers and provide fresh food in areas that lack full-service grocery stores,” according to the Sacramento Bee.

This week, the Fargo, N.D. City Council passed an ordinance, allowing homeowners up to four backyard chickens.

Larger cities, like Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and Pittsburg, Pa., have posted progressive urban agricultural policies online.

Chicken Fights

Some cities are conversely fighting the trend, such as Glendale, Ariz. The city council “scratched plans to allow more homeowners to raise chickens after an outpouring of public criticism — and support — for the backyard birds caused what one council member called ‘a polite civil war’ across the city,” according to the Arizona Republic.

Last month, the board of health in Appleton, Wisc., — while raising concerns about health and the permitting process — split the vote on a proposal that would allow residents to raise backyard chickens. Because no majority was reached, it went to the city council with a recommendation for denial. On April 6th, the proposal stalled at the Appleton City Council meeting, and the item will be discussed at the next meeting later this month.

While one resident touted the “ethical protein” backyard chickens provide, Alderperson Cathy Spears wasn’t convinced.

“My constituents overwhelmingly called me and told me they didn’t want chickens,” according to local news WSAU.

“I also studied public health for many years,” she continued, “and being interested in public health, I know there have been a lot of outbreaks because of chickens and backyard chickens.”

In Virginia Beach, Va., one unidentified resident is running afoul of the law while keeping chickens even though it is illegal to do so.

gregs chickens

A Backyard Chicken Coop in Stevens Point, Wisc.

“I want to be doing this legally,” he told the Virginian Pilot. “Like I have a generator for hurricanes, I want to be able to provide eggs for my family if there’s an emergency and stores are closed.”

Virginia Beach allows chickens only on land zoned for agricultural use — usually sprawling farmland in the southern part of the city below a boundary drawn to protect rural qualities. The rule dates back to at least 1985.

But that could change if Councilwoman Jessica Abbott has her way. Elected to the Virginia Beach City Council last November after campaigning on the issue, Abbott said she supported legalizing backyard chickens before she decided to run for office.

“Abbott conducted an online survey asking if the city should consider changing the ordinance to allow hens — not roosters — in certain residential areas. She got 1,687 responses, mainly from residents in Bayside, Kempsville and Princess Anne, and 93 percent were in favor,” the Pilot reported.

 

About the author

Larry Claflin, Jr.

Larry Claflin, Jr.

Columnist Larry Claflin, Jr., is a freelance writer based in New England and co-founder and former executive director of the non-profit Salem Jazz and Soul Festival. He is fascinated with the mechanics of city government and cultural development in cities.