Chickens may come home to roost

Columbia considers allowing 4 hens, no roosters, per house

jmonk@thestate.comNovember 12, 2009 

  • If you go Columbia City Council will hear from people next week. This is an informational hearing. Council will not vote on this issue Wednesday. What: Chicken public hearing When: 10 a.m. Wednesday Where: Columbia City Hall, 1737 Main St., third-floor council chambers

    Allowed, not allowed

    Roosters are banned.

    Up to four hens are permitted.

    Coops must conform to a certain size per chicken. - Coops must be at least 25 feet from any property line.

    Owners must clean up chicken droppings "regularly" and put it in a "fly-proof container."

    Coops are prohibited in front or side yards.

    Chickens can't be raised for commercial use.

    Chickens must be confined to premises.

    Chicken owners must pay a $100 annual inspection fee.

    Chickens may not be slaughtered on the property.

    John Monk

The cluck stops here.

Next Wednesday, a proposed ordinance to allow Columbia homeowners to keep up to four chickens in their backyards will get a first airing in a public hearing.

Don't worry - the proposal before City Council bans roosters, those noisy male fowl who do not lay eggs and whose crowing can drive a neighborhood crazy. And don't worry, the chickens can lay eggs without them.

City officials say questions raised at the meeting will help them improve the ordinance, if they chose to pass it later.

"There's a good bit of interest in the proposal," said Councilman Sam Davis, who has heard from about 50 people, "pro and con."

If Columbia enacts a chicken-owning ordinance, it will join other cities around the country that let residents raise female chickens, or hens - primarily to let people gather home-grown eggs.

Those cities include Atlanta, Charlotte and Chapel Hill, N.C. Currently in Columbia, an unknown number of people keep chickens quietly - and illegally - in their yards.

Council won't vote at the hearing, but its seven members are expected to get an earful from all sides.

Pro-chicken activist Mel Jenkins of the Rosewood neighborhood, for example, said he doesn't like a proposed provision that would require anyone owning chickens to have some sort of "flooring made of concrete or other suitable washable material."

Chickens, he says, are supposed to peck bugs from grass.

And, Jenkins said, he's against a proposed $100 annual inspection fee that would be levied on anyone owning chickens. Dog and cat owners don't have to pay such fees, he says.

"As far as I'm concerned, the ordinance in its present form is prohibitive," Jenkins said.

Davis said concerns of citizens he has talked to include making sure chickens don't threaten the health of other animals (including the chickens themselves) or people. And noise must not pose a problem, he said.

And, he said, "If we have people with chickens who don't comply with the ordinance, we need to have the backbone to enforce the ordinance."

City folk raise chickens for several reasons - to eat better-tasting and more nutritious eggs, to reduce their farm-to-market carbon footprint, and to educate children that eggs come from living creatures, not grocery stores, according to chicken activists. Raising urban chickens is also part of a movement toward a simpler, homegrown way of life known as sustainability.

Last summer, after a slew of requests, city officials instructed city animal services officer Marli Drum to put together a draft chicken ordinance.

Drum reviewed ordinances in numerous cities. She said her own two-page proposal before council is just that - a proposal.

"I know there are complaints about a couple of things, and I've told people, 'Don't panic about any of this stuff. That's why we're doing the public hearing,'" she said. "It's everybody's opportunity to stand up and say what concerns they have."

Drum predicted even with the best ordinance, chickens can pose problems:

- Chickens may get loose and wander into neighbors' yards, "scratching up somebody's flower bed."

- Chickens can attract more foxes, raccoons and coyotes, predators increasingly showing up in cities.

- Some people may break the rules and keep roosters, whose cries will upset neighbors.

Any chicken ordinance "is also about what's best for the birds," she said. "We want to make sure the birds are properly cared for."

The ordinance specifically bans slaughtering chickens "because you don't want a neighbor looking over the fence and freaking out," Drum said.

Councilman Daniel Rickenmann leans toward favoring a chicken ordinance. He doesn't think it will bring big changes to peoples' lives.

"This is something we ought to look at, and if it doesn't work, we come back to it," he said. "How many people are going to raise chickens? My guess is not many."

Councilwoman Belinda Gergel said, like others, she has questions about the $100 annual fee and the concrete flooring.

But "initiatives that allow city residents to grow their own food and contribute to the green movement are important, especially in this day and age," she said.

Mayor Bob Coble took the initiative in having the city attorney draw up the proposal.

"I do think it's something we ought to consider," said Coble, noting that long ago, city dwellers raised chickens. "It's a back to the future initiative."

Drum said no chicken ordinance will be perfect.

"As long as you have any kind of animals, somebody is not going to be happy with something," she said.

Reach Monk at (803) 711-8344.

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