By Jono Miller – Can I keep chickens in my area? Across the country chicken lovers are fighting for the right to keep a few backyard chickens. The City of Sarasota is thought of as a Florida resort/retirement community with great beaches — an image that may not include owning chickens and small-scale poultry farming, but after an 18-month campaign, we secured a 5-0 vote to legalize backyard hens. Now you can learn from our experience and our mistakes.
We assumed that we could simply ask the City Commission to change the laws and they would. That was naïve. First, we had to get the Commission to direct their planning staff to research the possibility and propose an approach. We worked with staff to shape that proposal. Then we had to go before the Planning Board (which did not support us) before actually getting a revised ordinance in front of the Commission.
So here is what we learned:
1) Don’t assume it will be quick and plan to work closely with those who will be framing the proposal. We started to work closely with the right people in local government. Our planners were cautious and skeptical at first, but came around once they learned about the experiences in other communities. Having planning staff support helped offset the unfavorable planning board vote. Luckily one of the city planners lived in the country and kept chickens, which leads to the next tip.
2) Your chances are greatly improved if you have supporters inside the system. Ideally, cultivate at least one supporter on the final decision making body, the planning staff, and any planning advisory board. These people can speak from the dais when you can’t, and give you important insider tips on strategy and tactics. And having one early-supporter insider reduces the number of others you have to convince. If you can’t start with a decision-maker that supports you, find some supporters who are savvy about local politics. One obvious source: former elected officials or other opinion leaders — we ended up with three former commissioners supporting us and that said a lot. If possible, identify a spokesperson who knows about owning chickens and the local political scene.
The media are pre-disposed to be on your side — keeping chickens as pets is trendy. Naming our group CLUCK and having slogans like “Give peeps a chance” certainly didn’t hurt. Get as many people as you can to ask, why is owning chickens banned?, and direct them toward the appropriate people in local government. When we saw the headline Chicken Advocates Want Ban Scratched we knew the press was itching to cover our quest.
3) Make contact with media early and not just the news staff … court the editorial boards, because you’ll need them before any hearings about owning chickens. Our biggest local paper switched from a somewhat critical Hatch a Compromise editorial to Make Way for Chickens after we met with the editorial board and addressed their concerns. Reading a positive editorial in the local paper can help elected officials make the right choice.
Early on we made a commitment to “address all reasonable concerns” about owning chickens and to do so honestly. Whenever there is a disagreement about the impacts of hens, you want to be on the side that appears the more reasonable and researched. Document your assertions — there is a lot of information online, including on our Sarasota CLUCK blog.
4) If opponents have a valid concern, address it — don’t ignore it or engage in personal attacks. Treat your opposition with respect, even if they have not earned it — your behavior will eventually influence the decision-makers, even if it is subconsciously. Residents have legitimate concerns about noise, pollution, and even avian influenza symptoms and other communicable diseases, so make sure that you are well-armed with facts and deliver them in a calm and rational manner.
5) As part of your reasonableness, be willing to compromise. Decision makers will not understand chickens the way you do and will have some demands you believe are unreasonable. We had to let go of our quest for six hens and settle for four. And we ended up adding “comfort language” we didn’t think was really necessary but which helped reassure skeptics. Start with your ideal (but reasonable) position but be willing to give a little — demonstrating you are not dogmatic about chickens reinforces the idea that you are not crazy chicken lovers (even if some of you are).
If your situation was like ours, you’ll have a few reliable supporters that will show up at virtually all the meetings and hearings and a far larger group who are sympathetic but not as passionately engaged. Believe it or not, this second group may end up making the difference in your campaign.
6) Find every ally you can. People owning chickens illegally in your community are justifiably reluctant to speak up, so get letters from those with supportive, sympathetic neighbors and redact (black out) their names and addresses leaving the city and zip code. Anyone who asks, can I keep chickens in my city, might be good allies in your quest. Testimony from real neighbors who don’t find owning chickens to be problematic can be very persuasive when compared to speculative what-if horror stories. Seek out the county extension office, 4-H, local and slow food advocates, chefs and restaurant owners, farmers market people, community gardeners, CSAs, college students, young professionals, public radio, whoever.
And do whatever you can to document support. Elected officials find it easier to do the right thing if they are convinced the majority supports them and the vocal minority is just that; a small group of squeaky gears. Use petitions, but design the form to collect phone or email contact info. A list of supporter’s names and addresses alone won’t help you when you have to get people to a hearing.
7) Get names and contact info for everyone that attends a meeting, they have already proven they are willing to leave home to support owning chickens. These folks will be the source of most of your team leadership. We found the Internet to be a valuable part of our campaign. One of us started a website with basic information about the campaign and our meeting info, looking for people who were wondering, can I keep chickens in my city? Another started a Facebook group, which quickly grew to 500. Facebook is a great way to stay in touch, particularly with younger supporters. And I started a blog that automatically posted to a local news aggregator website that got our message in front of thousands.
8) Whether or not you own a computer, find at least one supporter who is computer savvy and use the internet to your advantage. See if there is a local “Patch” news website or news aggregator website. In addition to getting our word out, the Internet was a great source of information and inspiration. Every argument thrown at us had already been addressed by people who had already gone through the process in places like Salem, Oregon, Springfield, Missouri, and Montgomery, Ohio. These communities made our success possible.
9) All politics is local, so collect whatever geographic data you can about your supporters. You may eventually have to lobby neighborhood groups (we did), so knowing who your inside supporters are will be invaluable. Most of our opposition came from neighborhood organizations with predictable concerns about odor, noise, disease, etc. and some adopted anti-chicken positions before they even heard what we were proposing. We looked inside those neighborhoods to find our supporters and made sure their voices were heard at neighborhood board meetings.
10) In every organization and every neighborhood there is at least one person, and usually more, favorably disposed to owning chickens. Your job is to find them and learn how to call on them when they are needed. Even if they can’t secure a “yes” vote, they can help neutralize the opposition. And make sure those who speak at hearings are people who can vote for those making the decisions. We learned quickly that our city leaders bristled at support from those outside city limits.
11) There are people in your community who will benefit financially if backyard chickens are legalized. Secure their support. Years ago they might have been seen as “special interests,” today they are part of reviving the local economy. Post information about your initiative at feed stores (to get the attention of the local chicken underground who are buying feed for their stealth hens) and while you are there, look for people that might build coops. Use the online National Poultry Improvement Program (NPIP) searchable database to find hatcheries, independent flocks, and dealers near you. These are nearby professionals dedicated to disease-free poultry. Your supporters are their potential local market. These are the local folks with an economic interest in your campaign, people who can get citizens to hearings. You might be surprised to find that there are more people interested in owning chickens than you had previously thought.
12) Having a few gorgeous, mellow hens that can go to neighborhood meetings is a great idea. We had a buff Brahma hen named Sarah that was our unofficial goodwill ambassador. No one could take offense to Sarah and most were seduced by her fluffy charms, leading them to want to know more facts about chickens. She drew people in and, after a chat, most who met her signed our petition. It’s always good to have a friendly mascot like Sarah.
In retrospect, we’re not sure why it took us so long, but once we asked the question about owning chickens, we worked hard to get them legalized within our city limits. All that hard work is behind us now, and coops are sprouting up all around town. I believe that if you have the patience of a broody hen, the focus of a rooster, and unruffled confidence of Sarah the Brahma, you will prevail.
Originally published in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.