Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Manatee County Staff to Draft Chicken Ordinance

On Tuesday March 26th the Manatee County Commission took one small step towards allowing backyard hens by directing staff to draft an ordinance allowing backyard hens. The vote was 4 to 3 with Commissioners Chappie, Whitmore, Bustle, and Gallen voting in favor and DiSabatino, Benac, and Baugh voting against.

Commissioners Benac, chappie, DiSabatino, Bustle, Baugh, Gallen, Whitmore

The discussion was delayed by more than an hour and the four or five opponents trotted out a mixture of legitimate concerns (that would be dealt with in any reasonable ordinance) and some "sky-is-falling" worst case fantasies such as assurances there would be "20 to 30" complaint calls a week if an ordinance were adopted.

Most of the arguments against were the predictable objections heard elsewhere: Salmonella, noise, odor and pollution, loose chickens, burdening code enforcement or animal control, and depressed real estate values. None of which have proved to be significant issues in the City of Sarasota.

The "farm animal" argument was also used, despite testimony that these chickens are not part of commercial agriculture operations, but rather pets, not unlike pot-bellied pigs. Applying the farm argument uniformly would require the county to ban dooryard citrus or a grow-box with tomatoes. We're talking about pets that people name and buy treats for, animals they are more likely to bury in a private ceremony than serve for dinner.

Another line of attack was the notion the "minority" of residents that favor chickens were somehow imposing their views on the "majority". This was an argument utilized by Commissioner DiSabatino apparently reflecting actions taken by some neighborhood associations and the Federation of Manatee County Community Associations Inc. It may be worth remembering that a core American value is protecting the rights of minorities. No neighbor should be expected to tolerate an obnoxious next door pet, whether it is a barking or biting dog, a bird-killing, sand-box fouling cat, or a squawking macaw on a lanai. But if a pet is not problematic, what right does one neighbor have to say their neighbor can't have one or more?

Organizations that adopt resolutions opposing chickens before an ordinance has even been drafted are reminiscent of small children that refuse to try a new food before they even know what it is. One would hope they would maintain a non-prejudiced view and base any objections on what was actually being proposed. Its worth noting that there are more provisions in the City of Sarasota's ordinance protecting neighbors than protecting chickens.

Perhaps more to the point, anyone living in a neighborhood with a mandatory HOA (Homeowner's Association) would have rules that would trump any county ordinance. So many of those objecting, who chose to live in such communities, have nothing to worry about.

In addition to chastising the "minority", Commissioner DiSabatino asked Code Enforcement Manager Joe Fenton to come forward and explain the legitimate challenges of enforcing code on fenced properties. CLUCK suspects that vast majority of urban chicken code complaints stem from roosters, and you don't need to be able to see through a fence to tell if there is a rooster present.

Some Commissioners expressed interest in minimum lot size, which could be a reasonable provision. But note should be made that chickens are allowed in Pinellas County (the state's densest county) as well as three quarters of the largest cities in the nation. 

Some of the best testimony came from attorney Earl Baden who showed pictures of himself as a kid with his hens and rebutted concerns about odor. His compassionate common sense experience stood in stark contrast to the alarmist testimony of the opponents. Holmes Beach Commissioner Jean Peelen offered refreshing positive testimony that included the fact that their ordinance is based on the City of Sarasota's and included the provision for movable coops. She said the only complaints from neighbors came from people who complained they wanted more eggs. Ronald Sprague of Palma Sola talked about his eight hens and how he had no neighbor complaints in two and a half years. He made the point, repeated by others, that these chickens are pets (just like dogs and cats).

Manatee County has a long way to go before backyard hens are approved with reasonable restrictions. But the ball is rolling, however slowly, and chicken advocates need to step up.


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