It’s not surprising that urban chicken owners have been the first to run headlong into 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 can be levied on homeowners 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 While most urban chicken keepers are eager to comply with local laws and work with city officials, misinformation, outdated city documents and websites, and conflicting ordinances can land the homeowner in hot water.
Chicken Charges: Great Falls, Mont.
Charles Bocock and his wife, Cheryl Reichert, of Great Falls, Mont., have long been participants in sustainable living. Their home boasts solar panels, a hybrid car and organic gardens. Bocock, a master gardener, wanted chicken droppings for his compost pile.
“I knew that chicken manure would really keep my compost pile going,” he says. “My wife loved the eggs and enjoyed keeping the hens. It was a win-win for us.”
The couple visited city hall and received a copy of an ordinance that vaguely restricted livestock animals but were reassured by the city staff that chickens were not part of that restriction. After receiving verbal approval from their neighborhood association, they started their flock of six Welsummer chicks. Bocock built a coop under the deck behind a 6-foot privacy fence where the hens lived for nearly two years.
In late 2009, Bocock and Reichert received papers from a city worker requiring them to get rid of their hens or face a misdemeanor charge with penalties fines of up to $500 and/or six months in jail per chicken per day they kept them after a two-week grace period. They were told the city attorney interpreted “livestock” in the city ordinance code to include chickens.
“That’s three years per day!” says Bocock. “That’s more than most murderers get.”
Mixed Messages: John’s Creek, Ga.
Martha Mellon and her three boys found themselves in a similar situation in John’s Creek, Ga. Mellon had researched her city’s animal-control ordinances before she purchased 12 hens for her 1-acre suburban lot. Hoping to provide healthy eggs for her children and neighbors, she was pleased to learn that chickens were legal in John’s Creek.
An animal-control ordinance specified the coop be placed at least 100 feet from any nearest neighbor, so she 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,” Mellon says. “I used to get up before dawn and sit down there with my coffee and watch them greet the day.”
From January through July 2009, she kept the pullets without incident. Then, to her surprise, like Bocock and Reichert, was informed by a city zoning officer that she was in violation of a zoning ordinance. Though she was following the animal-control ordinance, she learned there was also a zoning ordinance that stated chicken coops must be at least 200 feet away from the nearest neighbor.
When Mellon 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 six months in jail.
What’s a Jail Bird to Do?
Bocock and Reichert quickly loaned their contraband hens to a farm-owning friend, but they have taken steps to educate their community and work with the city to change the animal-control ordinance. They joined with neighbors to create Citizens for Legalizing Urban Chickens, gathered hundreds of signatures and spent time talking with city commissioners. Working with the city planning director, Michael Haynes, CLUC helped develop a draft hen ordinance based on ordinances in neighboring communities.
“We decided we wanted to do this the right way and change the laws,” Bocock says.
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.
However, the cost of continued litigation and the threat of jail time was more than Mellon 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 city after city rehashes existing laws and constructs new urban-farming laws, some people believe that states should prevent local governments from regulating family food production. Georgia State Rep. Bobby Franklin, R-43, proposed the Georgia Right to Grow Act to the current Georgia general assembly 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 (H.B. 842) was introduced last session but not passed. Mellon 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 H.B. 842. One such person, Rob Miller, 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,” Miller says. “People should be able to be as self-sufficient as they can be.”
While cities across the nation are wrestling with their citizens over urban chicken keeping, folks like Mellon, Bocock and Reichert are doing without their hens because they fear hefty fines and jail time for practicing their self-sustaining lifestyle.