Where to Start in the Quest to Legally Keep Chickens
Most towns and counties have a zoning office or an office that oversees property usage. Starting here will give you an idea of what direction to take. Be aware, some of the roadblocks might be local to your backyard. In other words, your town or county may allow backyard chickens, but the neighborhood where you purchased your home, does not. Neighborhood covenants are a part of the sale agreement you signed when purchasing your property. Covenants stating that livestock is prohibited in the neighborhood will supersede other local laws that allow chicken keeping. This means you cannot legally keep backyard poultry unless you get the neighborhood covenant changed. Each neighborhood community association has a set of by-laws. Looking at the by-laws would be the starting place if you want to take on the battle to change a covenant.
Counties and towns also have zoning by-laws, ordinances, and guidelines that are followed. Prohibiting people from being able to legally keep chickens often stems from past issues with people who did not do a good job at managing their flocks. As people left the farms for a more “modern” lifestyle, many people wanted to leave all farming behind. They wanted no reminders of their past lifestyle living right next door. Chickens were thought to be kept by poor farm families. They had no place in modern society! Times have changed and thinking has turned around on this issue. Sadly the laws are slower to change.
Meeting with Elected Officials
Before requesting a hearing on the laws, set up one-on-one meetings with the town or county zoning officials, and board members. For example, some people think that you must have a rooster for hens to lay eggs. Just telling them this isn’t true may not be enough. Prepare a fact-based response. Most people do not want to be awakened at daybreak by the next door neighbor’s crowing rooster.
Keep in mind that you are dealing with individuals from varying backgrounds. Many will have no idea of the care involved in keeping backyard chickens and may confuse the idea with a large poultry operation. Listen to their concerns with an open mind so you can gather information to refute the concerns. Also, be aware that other forces or community groups might be pulling their decision in the opposite direction. For some reason, allowing you to legally keep chickens, can become a polarizing topic in some towns. Some report last-minute changes to previous yes votes. Some report expert testimony making the difference. The battle can go on for a long time.
Gather Information Concerning How to Legally Keep Chickens
First look up the law, or ordinances concerning farm animals, and livestock. Look for specific language concerning the number of animals that are allowed and the species prohibited. That may be your first toehold into changing the law.
Have other nearby towns or counties recently allowed people to legally keep chickens? How many hens are permitted in these towns? Has there been opposition since the law was changed? Answers to questions like this will strengthen your argument. Five hens may be acceptable to city zoning officials while twelve hens may seem out of line. Further, the idea that chickens as pets are treated much like the family dog or cat is a foreign thought to those who haven’t raised backyard chickens.
Begin to gather facts concerning backyard chicken keeping. Make every effort to remain with factual information and focus less on emotions. We all love our chickens and the fresh food they provide to us. How does this translate into a neighborhood setting? Will the hens be annoying to your neighbor who likes the quiet of her backyard garden? Just how much noise does a chicken make?
Manure and odor are a concern in a close setting like a neighborhood or small town. Present an action plan for how chicken manure and waste will be handled, composted or disposed of properly. Although you know that this is gold for the vegetable garden, many people would cringe at the thought of a compost bin in the next door backyard. These are the sort of stumbling blocks you will likely encounter during the hearings.
Gather Testimony Evidence and Invite Experts to Testify at a Hearing
Proponents of backyard chicken keeping have invited university professors, veterinarians, and elected officials to present pertinent material to the board members during the hearing on changing the law. Consider seeking out experts in both the care of chickens and the benefits to the environment. Concerns will be raised about Salmonella, Avian Influenza, and other bird-borne illness. Soothe the fears by letting an expert handle the questions on how likely an outbreak really is from a backyard flock. Other mayors or elected officials may be helpful in testifying that no complaints have been received in their towns since the law changed to allow backyard chickens.
What Will the New Law Look Like?
If the law is changed and you can now keep backyard chickens, what will the parameters look like? Of course, each town will have its own special set of criteria. Some may limit the backyard flock to a certain size. Others might conditionally allow up to eight or ten hens but reserve the right to withdraw approval after a year or two of testing it.
In my area, one city allowed permits for less than six hens during a trial of three years. The law was updated to look like this after the trial period. A maximum of five chickens per property is permitted with a sturdy chicken coop, and an attached run. Setbacks of at least five feet from the property line are required. All permits, licenses, and paperwork including permit fees must be paid before the chickens arrive on the property. The law also states that no mules, cows, cattle, sheep, swine or other poultry including roosters, with the exception of chickens, is permitted. Each person is required to get written approval from all neighbors abutting the property, register the chickens with planning and zoning and be subject to inspections.In contrast, the county only regulates chicken keeping if the property is less than 40,000 square feet. No permit is needed for properties over that size.
It can be a good idea to ask that the law contains specific wording concerning bantam chickens. These smaller chickens are half to a third smaller than the standard breeds. In some areas, one standard chicken is equal to three bantams.
What to do if Your Request is Denied
In an Eggshell
- Approach changing your local laws in a business-like manner. Be respectful and polite even at times where discussions may be tense.
- Have your facts in order. Present clear arguments to back up your statements.
- Stay on topic. You are asking for the law to change for legally keeping chickens in town. Don’t bring up that you may eventually want to keep a small herd of dairy goats, too.
- Be prepared to make concessions about the number of chickens you can keep.
- Know the facts on composting chicken manure.
- Use social media to gain momentum and support.
- Gather a grassroots movement, including people who aren’t interested in keeping chickens but realize the benefits to the community.
- Be respectful to the people who may be keeping illegal chickens. They may not want to call attention to themselves.
- Remember you are dealing with different personalities in local government and each one brings its own bias and background to the discussion. Some may feel this will negatively impact the town, stress animal control resources, and cause a large legal nightmare.
- If you feel you are ready for the time investment needed to change the law regarding chicken keeping, start now. There is no better time to jump into the battle and positively impact people’s perception of backyard chicken keepers. The homesteading movement and clean eating trend have brought the subject of raising your own food to the forefront. Take the opportunity to bring fresh eggs from backyard hens to your community.
Have you already been involved in challenging laws regarding keeping chickens? Tell us your story.