Tuesday, June 21, 2011

the city council

So, all unbeknownst to me, the municipality in which I live (and hope to raise chickens) has been, even as we've had and lost our first flock, contemplating limits that would turn our new flock into contraband. Specifically, anyone who wanted to raise chickens would have to erect a privacy fence around their entire yard and, after erecting said privacy fence would be permitted to keep a whopping total of three chickens!!!

When I learned, late yesterday, of this clearly misguided plan and the City Council's intention to discuss it that very evening...well, now you know what I did last night. Over dinner, I hammered out a few talking points and did a little research. One of the books in my growing library has a chapter entitled "Get City Chicks Legal in Your Town." Although I haven't found the book, City Chicks, to be all that useful in general, this little chapter proved invaluable last night. 

It was my first visit to the City Council. In many respects it was not unlike the school board hearings I've attended as part of my day job. The vast majority of people who serve on these boards and councils are well-intentioned and conscientious. It is often-tedious work, but essential to the functioning of our public institutions. I'm proud that one of our councilwomen (and a formidable one at that!) is a friend and was a fellow traveler on the mid-life law school path. She was a year ahead of me in law school and we got to know each other in the context of the search for the ever-elusive balance between the demands of a top-tier legal education and the equally pressing demands of family. I remember hearing her talk, during 1L orientation, about how she structured her days in order to do sufficient studying and still have time with her husband and children. I was deeply apprehensive at the time, having read Scott Turow's terrifying 1L and hearing from the law school administration all kinds of depressing statistics about the under-performance of "non-traditional" students like me. After hearing her talk, I began to feel that perhaps I really could manage this seemingly-impossible task. And of course I did.

While most of the people who serve are perfectly reasonable and thoughtful, there are those occasional few who come to their public service with a personal agenda, or a history that has left them scarred in one way or another, or a temperament that is just ill-suited to governance. One of our councilmen appears grimly set against the entire concept of raising chickens in the city in a way that seems to defy logic and reason. I have no idea why he feels this way, of course, and I am hopeful that the more reasonable folks on the council will prevail upon him to soften his stance. One of his more absurd observations/queries was to note that we don't allow people to have ten dogs, so why should we allow them to have ten chickens.

The number 10 comes from the sustainability committee of the non-profit "Friends of" our municipality. There was a contingent from their committee at last night's meeting and they were as wonderful and positive as the unfortunate councilman was dark and rigid. One of them had submitted a spreadsheet reflecting the legal status of chickens in our neighboring communities, highlighting the relative severity of our rule, and provided some other very helpful information. Another community member spoke movingly about how he and his wife, in retirement, had embraced the joys of organic gardening and had taken in two "rescue chickens" that had been at the bottom of the pecking order of the flock kept by the community childhood center and in danger of being killed by their flock-mates. Now they live in a coop created from a Little Tikes playhouse that was discarded by another family!

And I spoke. I made chickens my client last night and pleaded their cause like I'd argue any case. After introducing myself and Hank and telling them how long we'd lived in the community, here (roughly) is what I said: 

I’m here tonight because I’m distressed to see this community moving backwards on this issue. I respectfully disagree with the limitations the City has placed on permits to raise chickens.
These days more and more people are recognizing the value of raising their own food, whether that means planting a few tomato plants, growing an entire victory garden or raising a small flock of hens to ensure a supply of healthful fresh eggs. The value of this kind of small-scale, close to home, food production becomes more attractive with each new E Coli outbreak and each new revelation about the dangers of chemicals in our food supply.
For some families, the drive to grow their own food is about more than just food safety or the latest fad. In these tough economic times some families are relying increasingly on their own backyards for the basic nutrition they need to keep their families healthy.
There are few things more economical or “green” than a flock of hens—give them a bit of chicken feed and your table scraps and they will reward you with beautiful, nutritious fresh eggs. And in the bargain they’ll help control the bugs in your yard—including ticks, fleas, flies and mosquitoes—and reduce food waste that might otherwise end up in a landfill.
I think of this as a family-friendly community with lots of resources to support the families who live here. There are few activities that are more educational or more just plain fun for kids than raising a small flock of hens. Taking responsible care of a flock—starting from baby chicks, watching their antics, watching them grow into full-fledged hens, seeing that first egg appear in the nest—these are the kinds of experiences our children will always remember and they are experiences in short supply in modern city life.
The limitations that are being discussed are draconian and would make it impossible for an average family to keep chickens. The privacy fence requirement would leave out any family that’s having a hard time economically or who, like most of us, just can’t afford to put up what ends up being a multi-thousand dollar fence. The limitation on only 3 birds would mean that all but the very smallest families would not be able to get enough eggs from their birds to actually feed their families.
I understand that some people worry about the smells, sounds or sights of a chicken coop. It’s reasonable to be concerned that whatever a homeowner does on his or her property does not pose a risk to sanitation or safety—and we have laws on our books to ensure just that. Title II of our Municipal Code comprehensively addresses public health and safety and prohibits nuisances.
A few facts: a family flock of ten hens is not the same as a factory farm of 100,000 in terms of the smells and waste it generates. A flock of ten hens produces less waste each day than a 40-pound dog—and that waste, unlike the dog’s, is recyclable as garden fertilizer. Chicken coops can be beautiful and whimsical. If you take a look on the internet you’ll see many examples of lovely coops that would be an asset to our community, not an eyesore. Chickens are very quiet. At their noisiest they are only slightly louder than human conversation and considerably less noisy than our children at play in our backyards or barking dogs!
In closing, I urge you not to impose restrictions that would make our city among the least hospitable of local municipalities for families who want to keep a small flock of chickens. These are birds that, if responsibly cared for, have the potential to be solid animal citizens of our community and to give back so much in the way of education, entertainment and nutrition.
Gratifyingly, most of the people in the room seemed to agree with me. A reporter from the Post asked for my card. The sustainability folks reached out and invited us to join them. After the meeting, Hank and I shook our heads and wondered at how it was this whole chicken thing had led us down such an unexpected series of paths. Back in May, when I was aching for something to do, something to occupy my mind and energy, I never would have envisioned myself as a crusader for backyard chickens. But here I am. And although last night's visit to the City Council caused an enforced hiatus in coop construction, we were back at it this evening. Because I do believe that by the time our new flock is ready to take up residence in their fortress, the voices of reason will have rendered them completely legal.

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