Sunday, December 19, 2010

Backyard Chickens: A matter for neighbors or neighborhoods?

Neighbor Matters versus Neighborhood Matters

Neighborhoods struggle with a wide variety of challenges and opportunities.  Many of these challenges are the result of external, intrusive threats that have the potential to permanently change the character of the neighborhood.  Big incompatible buildings, cut-through traffic, undesired government infrastructure projects, and crime waves are all too common examples.

In order to cope with these challenges, neighborhoods organize and select leaders who can argue on behalf of the neighborhood, secure in the knowledge that the residents are united in a strong consensus opposing the threat (or endorsing the opportunity). And when these matters affect multiple neighborhoods they band together for collective action.

One hallmark of this type of proposed change is that while the strength of objection (or support) may vary across the neighborhood, there is general agreement about whether neighbors oppose or support the proposed change. A hypothetical example could be a waste transfer station proposed for a lot zoned Government Use on the edge of the neighborhood. Neighbors closest to the site can be expected to be the most alarmed and most motivated. But even neighbors on the other side of the neighborhood can be relied upon to question the change and virtually no one can be found that supports placing the waste transfer facility in the neighborhood. And residents in the targeted neighborhood feel especially put upon or burdened – “why does it have to be in OUR neighborhood?”

Another hallmark of this type is that the change typically affects only one or two neighborhoods. The waste transfer facility directly affects the neighborhood in question, as well as the adjacent neighborhood, but the vast majority of neighborhoods in the City have no particular stake in the outcome.

The exception of course, is a city-wide change being contemplated by government. An example could be a proposed shift in rules regarding neighborhood compatibility – how to evaluate proposed non-residential projects adjacent to residential neighborhoods. In this case, many, if not most, neighborhoods have something at stake and they can be expected to coordinate their support for or opposition to what is being proposed.

This is how neighborhoods and neighborhood coalitions work best, agreeing on a course of action to challenge or endorse something there is broad agreement on.

But not all change comes from the outside. In some cases change comes from within, from the neighbors themselves, and this creates quite a different dynamic.

Florida Yards are an example. People disenchanted with the cost and upkeep of conventional yards abandon turf grass for butterfly plants, native shrubs and bunch grasses such as Purple Muhly and Fahkahatchee grass. Other neighbors are aghast and appalled, believing that it is hard to tell wildflowers from weeds and argue that they moved into a neighborhood with lawns and expect it to remain so. Some neighbors don’t care – how people tend their yards seems to be either a trivial or private matter. And some have no interest in abandoning their lawns but feel its okay if others want to.

At the heart of things, matters like Florida Yards and the switch towards native landscaping are not neighborhood issues, but neighbor issues. Reasonable people can disagree on such things and there is no real neighborhood consensus. Trying to push the neighborhood one way or the other simply exacerbates tensions as the factions escalate their efforts to affect the decision-making process. Rather than strengthening a neighborhood, such battles have the potential to weaken and polarize the neighborhood.

Clotheslines are another example. Some find them tacky, unsightly throwbacks to an earlier, less refined time, and perhaps a little like airing laundry in public. Proponents know they are saving energy, but more than that, they see it as a property rights issue.

Backyard Chickens: A Case in Point

At first take, the matter of backyard chickens appears to be a case of government reaching into the neighborhood to change the rules everyone agreed to live by, a perception that leads to it being perceived as clearly a neighborhood matter.

But as the discussion matures, it becomes clear that it is actually quite different and more analogous to Florida Yards than a waste transfer facility or a city-wide change in compatibility rules.

How can we tell?

a)    This is not a matter limited to one or two neighborhoods, but would affect most. Only the multi-family and mandatory homeowner associations would be unaffected. This means the proposed change is not targeting or unfairly burdening any particular neighborhood.

b)   There is no single identifiable site – no geographic locus to the matter. Any private single family lot, anywhere in the neighborhood could have chickens, or could not have chickens.

c)    While there may be a majority opinion, it is neither virtually unanimous or a consensus. Some are strongly opposed, but there are significant numbers of people that don’t care, are advocates, or who don’t want chickens themselves, but don’t mind if the neighbors have them.

d)   Backyard chickens is not a government project being rammed down the throat of a targeted community and neither is it the big outside developer or outsiders bringing in traffic or crime. Backyard chickens are being advocated by other neighbors – it is people inside the community, and owning property in the community that are arguing for the change.


As a result, unpredicted things happen. Neighborhood leaders that initially approach the backyard chicken proposition as an external threat come to find that not everyone agrees with them. The solidarity that comes with fighting a big government project or a big private project is lacking. 

In fact, it turns out that neighborhood board members are often split on the matter, reflecting the differing perspectives within the neighborhood.  And that is exactly what has happened – neighborhoods that were presumed to be 100% against chickens have been revealed to be either divided or indifferent.

When individual neighbors are not in strong, nearly unanimous, agreement attempting to characterize the neighborhood as against (or for!) brings significant risk of weakening neighborhood organization. 

This is why CLUCK has never asked a neighborhood board to endorse backyard chickens – we realize that reasonable neighbors can disagree, that some people are opposed, and that pushing for a vote in such situations is a neighborhood-weakening endeavor.

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