Thursday, April 4, 2013

North Port PZAB Votes on Chicken Ordinance

After tackling an Urban Service Boundary for the City, on Thursday morning April 4th members of the North Port Planning and Zoning Advisory Board (PZAB) took up a proposed backyard chicken ordinance that the City Commission had (at a January 14th workshop) directed staff to draft based on the City of Sarasota ordinance.

Planning Staff member Barbara McKeathon presented the draft ordinance to the PZAB noting that the only significant change from the City of Sarasota's ordinance was an increase in the allowable number of hens from four to six, a change requested by the Board at the workshop. She clarified that, despite was was printed, rules adopted in CDDs and HOAs would take precedence over any City ordinance, meaning that those neighborhoods with mandatory homeowner associations could set their own rules about chickens and those would take precedence over any City ordinance allowing hens.

The PZAB members then raised a number of concerns:

• What would the expense be in having the building department come out two or three times to inspect the coop?

• What about odors, noise, roosters, cost to the City, and the possibility of them "free-ranging"?

• Would a greater setback distance be better?

• Could chicken droppings somehow pollute the wells of residents on wells and septic tanks?

• Would there have to be a house on a lot to qualify? (Yes)

Several of the Board members had prior experience with chickens. One was of the opinion that six hens would lay far too many eggs for one family. But several members seemed unfamiliar with backyard hens - one suspected a rooster might be needed for eggs to be laid.

The question about inspections was prompted by a question about the need for permits. Ms. McKeathon opined that a permit would be required (and hence the need for inspections).

A North Port mom with two sons in attendance spoke, affirming that the birds would primarily be pets. She challenged the argument that chicken poop would be likely to affect wells (graciously declining to point out that the septic tanks would be far more of an issue) and cautioned against expanding the setbacks to the point that the coops would be impossible to site on an average North Port lot.

Then CLUCK spokesperson Jono Miller spoke saying he was not going to tell North Port what to do, but was there to offer information about the City of Sarasota's experience after two years. He pointed out that while North Port had more citizens than the City of Sarasota, Sarasota was far denser and that led to increased potential for neighbor complaints. He stated that in 2009 and 2010, the years before the ordinance passed, there had been 2,988 code complaints, but that only seven had related to chickens. He said Sarasota lacked a computerized database for complaints so it was not easy to get current numbers, but that his understanding was that complaints had not increased. He said some cities report a drop in complaints after legalizing backyard hens and hypothesized that was both because some operations already complied with the law and other citizens would want to "color inside the lines" and comply with rules to insure they could keep their birds. He noted that all six City Commission candidates at a recent forum said they were comfortable with the chicken situation. He pointed out that the City of Sarasota was worried about demands on staff and estimated a permit would cost $100, so Sarasota dropped the requirement for a permit - a major difference from what the PZAB was considering. He then offered to answer questions, but there were none.

The public hearing was closed and the PZAB went back to discussing the proposal. Kenneth Maturo made it very clear he could not support the ordinance. Former City Commissioner Tower returned to his concerns about inspections and the cost of enforcement. He suggested than owning two lots might be a prerequisite for keeping chickens.

Then James Glass, the PZAB Chairman who appeared to have the most experience with chickens, attempted to temper some of the debate. He emphasized the fact that these birds would primarily be pets and would not actually lay 42 eggs a week as had been implied. He opined that based on the raccoon droppings he had been seeing the City might want to ban raccoons. He seemed to agree that the movable coop provision would solve a number of problems.

When all was said and done there seemed to be three substantive arguments:

1) That permitting, inspections, and enforcement might place an unwelcome burden on staff resources, and

2) That the rights of those wanting chickens had to be weighed against neighbors that did not want to see chickens in their neighbor's yards, and

3) That so few citizens were showing up to speak that it did not make sense to consider a change.

Then Mr. Tower moved and Mr. Maturo seconded a motion that the PZAB NOT recommend the ordinance to the City Commission, which passed 4 to 3. The Ordinance now goes back to the City Comission at 6:00 pm Monday, April 22nd.

Based on the minimal citizen turnout, the confusion about permitting, the lack of definitive data from the City of Sarasota, and the modest level of understanding of some PZAB members, this seemed like a good outcome -- one comparable to the 3-2 vote against chickens that emerged from the City of Sarasota Planning Board before the City Commission approved it.

For more on the big picture in North Port, go to: SPOTLIGHT SHIFTS TO NORTH PORT CHICKEN ORDINANCE.