Thursday, November 20, 2014

CLUCK requests reasonable protection for chicken advocates

The following was sent to County Administrator Harmer (with copies to the five Commissioners) on November 20th in an effort to clarify that citizens should be able to speak freely, without fear of reprisals, on the matter of backyard chicken keeping in Sarasota County, even if they currently have chickens illegally.

County Administrator Harmer:

Based on recent concerns, I drafted and circulated for comment among several CLUCK leaders the following communication:

Upon review of Ann McAvoy’s presentation during Open To The Public on Tuesday afternoon, I noticed she desribed her petition as being one that “many others support, but have not signed, for fear of retaliation”. 

Similar concerns have emerged on social media -- that is people being afraid to advocate on behalf of backyard chickens because they currently have chickens in zoning districts where they are not allowed. This morning I saw the following online query: “Might our signatures/address serve in generating citation notices if it doesn't pass?”

I don’t believe this is a particularly warranted fear, because I don’t believe our local government is vindictive or retaliatory and my understanding is that our code enforcement strategy is primarily complaint driven. 

However, it is unfortunate to think that the community support for backyard chickens is being artificially depressed out of fear. 

CLUCK has never advocated that people deliberately violate zoning codes in the hope they will not be noticed. Too many times we have heard the poignant anguish of people who had to give up their hens and consequently we don’t believe it is worth the risk. Nevertheless, some Sarasotans naively (like the Kormans) or defiantly choose to raise backyard hens in areas where they are currently prohibited. 

It is worth observing that these households represent valuable real-world experience that could inform the commission. If these chicken outlaws have been able to keep hens for a protracted period of time, their experience suggests backyard hens can be easily integrated within a neighborhood. And if neighbors do find fault and code enforcement gets involved, the genesis of the complaint can be instructive. In the Korman’s case, the chickens were a convenient proxy for what was actually a property boundary dispute between neighbors. We suspect this is a relatively common pattern – illegal chickens being used as pawns in ongoing neighbor chess matches. 

Therefore I am writing to request two things: first that the county temporarily suspend enforcement actions against chicken owners for a few days (except in cases involving suspected cockfighting, crowing roosters, health concerns, animal abuse, or animal hoarding) until the commission clarifies its intent (which probably needs to be on the agenda December 9th or 10th in order to respond in a timely manner to Special Magistrate Zack’s December 19th deadline). 

Second, reassure citizens that the county will not use their participation in this needed community discussion as a means of identifying people for possible enforcement action. 


Jono Miller
On behalf of Sarasota CLUCK

One of the City of Sarasota residents that kept chickens illegally who sparked the successful campaign to
legalize chickens in the City. No citizen should fear reprisals for participating in our democracy.

Below you will find the County Administrator's response, and my reply.

Tom Harmer

to meBCCThomas
Jono,  thank you for your email.  I wanted to respond to your specific request that the
county suspend enforcement actions against chicken owners that are violating the 
county’s current ordinance.  

I understand your concern and there is no intent or plans to target individuals that
are coming before the Board of County Commissioners to request a change in our 
current ordinances.  I have discussed that specific concern with our Planning and 
Development Services Director Tom Polk and he confirms that approach.  

It would be inappropriate for the County staff to not enforce the current ordinance 
but currently our enforcement efforts are focused on complaints that are received 
from the public by the County.  



Thomas A. Harmer, ICMA-CM
County Administrator
Sarasota County 
1660 Ringling Blvd. 2nd Floor
Sarasota, FL   34236
941.861.5111 (phone)
941.861.5987 (fax)

Tom et al.

Thanks for checking with Tom Polk and getting back to me. As I suspected, the
County does not target individuals questioning county poultry policies for 
possible enforcement actions. And I can see that the decision to suspend 
enforcement is a significant one with ramifications. I understand the County's 
situation, but note and appreciate that the county has exercised discretion and 
common sense in relation to the Kormans. We will get the word out.

My guess is the December 9 and 10 agendas are quite full, but in light of two 
things I hope you will be able to squeeze chickens onto the agenda. The first 
reason is the December 19th deadline imposed by Special Magistrate Zack. 
At the least, it would seem appropriate to discuss whether adjustments need to 
be made to allow sentinel chickens in zoning districts that don't currently
allow chickens. 

The second reason is that during the November 18th morning discussion at 
least three of the commissioners asked for a better understanding of support 
for change as a condition of further county action. It seemed both clear and 
reasonable that any consideration of a zoning change reflect a genuine desire 
of a demonstrated constituency and not merely a few squeaky gears.

Indeed, in June of 2011 CLUCK provided the following unsolicited advice to 
decision-makers in St. Lucie County: "Please don't change your chickens 
laws for just (a) handful of people. Citizens get justifiably upset when it 
looks like one or two people can get laws changed to suit their special 
circumstances. Make sure there is a diverse group with sizable 
numbers that support the changes."

No magic threshold number was mentioned by the Board that would warrant 
county action, although it seemed clear that twenty was too few. A few hours 
later, Ann McAvoy presented her petition with 270 county signatures and 86 
comments to the Board. Is 270 enough? That question probably warrants 
Board discussion. My understanding is that additional signatures will be 

CLUCK is aware that more than two years ago Commissioners Robinson and 
Mason endorsed a different test, one we believe to be impractical and onerous. 
We applaud this fresh approach based on gauging public interest. We note that 
since CLUCK formed, the City of Tampa as well as Hernando, Pinellas, 
Manatee, and Duval counties have all changed their ordinances to allow 
backyard hens. Sarasota chicken advocates have been patient, but believe the 
time has come to allow people a few pets hens and stop the heart-rending 
scenarios that unfold when families are forced to surrender pets whose 
transgression is solely being crosswise with county code.

If the Commission will vote to initiate a change in the zoning code, CLUCK 
will work with staff to develop an approach that will allow backyard hens 
without creating additional neighbor problems. In addition, CLUCK will work 
to educate the community regarding the proposed changes. 

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