Wednesday, May 15, 2013

North Port: One Vote Short

On Monday May 13th, 2013, the North Port City Commission fell one vote shy of getting ahead of the pet chicken phenomenon, a vote they may come to regret. With Commissioner Tom Jones still not back on the dais, measures need a 75% (3-1) approval rating to pass instead of the usual 60% (3-2). As a result the group deadlocked 2-2 and the measure failed when Commissioner Blucher switched his vote from the first reading. 

Commissioner Blucher started the questioning inquiring if the chickens could just be wandering free-range when not in the coop. Commissioner Cook wanted to know if people who wanted chickens would have the obtain permission from the owners of undeveloped neighboring lots. 

Citizens speaking in opposition seemed to be using chickens as proxies for other complaints they have with the City or their neighbors. One gentleman complained about four or five families living on one house. Entertaining and erratic former Commissioner Buddy Hughes managed to talk about a shopping center, cholesterol, and her cats. She said she "looked it up on the internet" and found chickens were "noisy, smelly and poop all over".

Several citizens spoke in favor and several mentioned the wild birds and other animals found in their yards that should pose a well-contamination risk comparable to the one hypothesized by Commissioner Cook. They also hit on the basic fairness theme and their right to keep animals so long as they weren't a nuisance. Angela Funes deserves lots of credit for stepping up and working to organize supporters by creating the NP City Chickens Facebook page.

Once they closed the public hearing it became evident the measure was in trouble, even though staff had delivered what the Commissioners had asked for: a requirement to have neighbor permission without burdening permitting staff. 

Commissioner Cook had a long list of complaints and concerns starting with her lingering disappointment that staff never took time to address the theoretical concern that chicken droppings could somehow contaminate wells. She wanted all neighbors to have to give permission, questioned compost, and alluded to some chicken problem in China. And then, apparently in a effort to show she was reasonable, suggested one chicken might be okay as pet and observed that she would be more likely to consider this if the gated communities wanted chickens -- which is roughly comparable to arguing that prayers should become a regular part of the school-day when atheists demand it. She finished by expressing concern that this "might open the door to zoning issues". 

Chicken owner and supporter Commissioner DiFranco spoke next, lamenting the fact that people are not taking care of their animals. She mentioned overbreeding and people walking away from their pets. She pointed out that even if North Port had as many code enforcement staff as Sarasota, the far larger territory complicated matters and made it more important that people police themselves. 

Commissioner Blucher observed that he had been non-committal to start with, but that he had heard from a lot of people since the first reading and had concluded "the majority do not want" chickens, without commenting on whether American governments exist to impose the preferences of the majority or protect the rights of the minority. He expressed concerns about enforcement and raised, for the first time, the issue of flies*. It was obvious he was going to switch his vote.

Mayor Yates, reading her peers, stated that 34 people had contacted the commission in support and only a handful opposed. She stated it was a private property rights issue and pointed out that banning chickens wasn't going to solve other animal issues in the City. She said it was unfortunate and sad that the measure was going down and repeated her plea to give it a try. But when the board flashed it was 2-2. 


CLUCK's North Port chicken prediction: Chicken complaints in North Port will increase, possibly dramatically. There are two reasons for this: first, all the media coverage and outcome (chickens are illegal) will drive a wave of complaints about pre-existing chickens (that previously may have been thought to be okay) and 2) people who wanted to color inside the lines and supported a reasonable ordinance will simply give up on their government and just get chickens anyway. For people like Commissioner Cook and former Commissioner Hughes, this will elicit a "see, I told you so" response. 

The North Port chicken community will continue to grow and organize (the Facebook page has 51 "likes" as of this posting) and eventually, possibly when a new Commission is seated, the Commissioners will realize it makes more sense to provide reasonable accommodations for backyard hens so that code enforcement can focus on real problems like animal abandonment, pet hoarding, animal abuse, and cockfighting. 



CLUCK wishes Commissioner Blucher had raised the fly issue sooner, since chicken waste can attract flies. Here is one chicken keepers experience:

I go for weeks or months with no noticeable fly problem. That convinced me my hens weren't creating a problem because their numbers are constant. Then all of a sudden there will be droves. At first I thought it was the weather - maybe drought suppressed flies. But eventually I realized my chickens were not creating the fly problem - they were the victims. 

Here's what I've figured out is going on: Some one throws out a lot of chicken carcasses from a barbecue, or they gut their fish when they get home, and they drag the garbage out to the curb where attracts flies that lay eggs. Or a raccoon or opossum gets hit by a car and crawls off to die. Soon it is crawling with hundreds, if not thousands, of maggots that turn into hundreds or thousands of flies. Those flies hatch out and need to find a place to lay their eggs. 

Here's where my chickens come in. The flies bred elsewhere show up in my yard, only to find tiny quarter-sized chicken droppings. Any port in a storm. So I end up doing the fly-trapping -- putting a stop to a fly problem generated by my neighbors or road-kill. Instead of chicken owners CREATING a neighborhood fly problem, they are the people motivated and equipped to STOP a neighborhood fly problem.