Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fine-tuning the City Code for Pet Hens

This morning I met with three members of the City Planning Staff to review their draft City Code changes that would allow keeping of backyard hens in the City of Sarasota. Staff has decided to process this as a change to the City Code, rather than approaching it as a Zoning Text Amendment.

Their initial draft was good, but differed in some respects from the CLUCK request, so we met to talk about what they had come up with.

The staff gets big points for keeping this simple. Their approach is lean, without a lot of specifications that would complicate matters. Here in simplified (non-ordinance) bullet form are the heart of the eleven constraints they proposed:

• Residential Single Family areas only ( No condos, multi-family, or duplexes)

• Up to four chickens

• No roosters

• No slaughtering

• Chickens must have a covered enclosure

• They must be kept in covered or fenced enclosure at all times

• Must be set back 10 feet from all property lines

• Constructed to thwart rodents and pests

• Maintained with dry bedding and regular removal of wastes

• Feed kept in secure containers

• Deed restrictions, neighborhood by-laws, covenant deeds take precedence

First we clarified that the City Staff are NOT proposing a permit system. You don't need a permit to have a dog or a cat, and adding the tracking systems necessary to permit other pets is an added burden the City clearly does not need right now.

Second, we established that the City was not contemplating requiring the enclosure or coop to meet hurricane codes -- doing so would make coops or enclosures prohibitively expensive and require additional permitting.

We discussed the fact that some locales require sign off by neighbors, but staff was quick to point out many problems with this approach. Would that be the owner of the building or the occupant? What if a neighboring home is vacant? What if ownership changes? It was agreed that keeping a few hens is either a reasonable use or it isn't and having to involve neighbors on a case by case basis was needlessly complicating things. But implicit in the concept of neighbor sign-off is the recognition that success will depend on good neighbor relations. More on this topic later.

That got us involved in two other questions.

One was the question of numbers. In defending their choice of four, staff pointed to a CLUCK email mentioning three to six chickens and argued that many municipalities have settled on four. Their position was that four hens, laying four eggs a day would keep a family well stocked, since that works out to more than two dozen a week. More than two dozen a week, they posited, would be more than an average family might be expected to consume and several breeds can usually be relied upon to lay one egg a day.

I countered that despite what one email may have said, our official request was for up to six hens and that we had reasons for that number. First I noted that coop construction or purchase can be a major expense and the additional incremental cost for two more birds (from 4 to 6) was relatively minor. I gave the example of a chicken tractor that sells for $300 and can accommodate 6 small hens. If you only have four, the cost per hen is $75, but with 6 it drops by a third to $50 per bird. Staff seemed unimpressed.

Then I agreed that a family might consume all the eggs four hens produced and that was one big reason we were arguing for six. I said CLUCK wanted chickens to strengthen neighborhoods and that depended on excess eggs to share with neighbors. I knew from previous experience that presenting neighbors with a dozen multi-hued eggs with perky yellow-orange yolks really helped them appreciate the value of backyard hens. Those gifts led to visit to see the birds, and the visits led to neighborhood children wanting to see the birds, and that led to finding chicken-sitters to check on the birds and collect eggs when we went on trips.

So I think we agreed to disagree -- staff seemed to want to limit egg production to what a family could consume and CLUCK members had expressed interest in excess capacity to share with neighbors. Staff said we were welcome to argue for six before the board, and I conceded that four was a better number than zero when it comes to legally keeping pet hens.

A bit later I think some of the staff members had a minor epiphany when I pointed out that four hens don't each lay an egg a day ad infinitum. Staff assumptions had been based on the most productive varieties, but many people enjoy some of the more exotic breeds, which are not as productive when it comes to eggs. Decreasing day length (winter), molting, broodiness, and age all negatively affect egg production. So while four year-old leghorn hens might hit two dozen a week, an aging mixed flock of four with a broody hen in winter is not going to get anywhere near those numbers. In such a situation six birds would be needed to come closer to meeting household needs.

Returning to the challenges of hurricanes and neighbor relations, we discussed movable coops. Movable coops, like boat trailers, would not need to meet hurricane code. And like boat trailers they could be relocated if a bad storm threatened. Movable coops, particularly chicken tractors, are better for the birds, because they allow the birds to interact with new parts of the yard in sequence, like moving cattle to new pasture. Movable coops also keep coop size small. But perhaps the biggest benefit of movable coops results from the fact that they can be moved. A movable coop allows a neighbor to work with the chicken owner to minimize visual impacts. So stipulating movable coops obviates the need to require elaborate construction techniques and permits, is better for the birds, and will help with neighbor relations.

Our time was up and I was told that the City Code change would travel along with the Zoning Text Amendments it started with. That might mean going to the Planning Board by the end of the year and before the City Commission early next year.

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