So I probably should have been documenting the progress of the Richmond Heights chicken ordinance as it happened but the truth is that I became so disheartened at the way it all fell out that I started to question whether the whole chicken venture was folly. But here's what happened: in early December, the City Council finally voted to enact an ordinance allowing residents to keep up to five chickens.
The process was pretty ghastly, with a fair amount of uncivil nastiness from the anti-chicken council members toward the pro-chicken folks. And those anti-chicken cretins managed to load the ordinance up with lots of deterrents. The setbacks for chicken coops and pens are far more onerous than for any other kind of structure one might place on one's property (20 feet from any property line or 25% of the width of the property; 40 feet from any residential building or place of business on an adjoining property). One must also obtain a permit to keep chickens, applying for which "authorizes City officials at all reasonable times and in a reasonable manner to enter upon and inspect the property with respect to which such permit is applied for to determine whether the keeping of chickens violates this section or any other applicable ordinances" and for which distinct pleasure I get to pay $25 a year.
None of which criticism is meant to undervalue the tremendous efforts of the people who managed to stay with the process (even after I lost the stomach for it) and get it passed, especially Linda Haynes Lieb and the Friends of Richmond Heights Sustainability Committee. She did yeoman's work and has earned my gratitude and respect.
Some of you may recall that we had begun, last summer, to construct a new coop and had gotten as far as framing it out when it began to seem doubtful we'd ever get a chicken ordinance. The new coop frame, which was terrifically sturdy (and heavy), was erected in the old chicken yard, much closer to the western property line than 20 feet or 25% of the width of our property.
No problem, I thought. The ordinance includes a provision whereby one can apply for a variance of the setbacks "if there are practical difficulties in compliance and proof of notice of the variance application is sent to all adjoining property owners." And one submits "written consent by all adjacent property owners directly affected by any encroachment." The neighbors to the west are super supportive and were quite happy to give their consent. Surely, the burden of having to move the partially constructed (and did I mention heavy?) coop through a fence to a different location in our decidedly un-level back yard would satisfy the "practical difficulties" test.
So, after considerable back and forthing in my own mind and quite a lot of insistence on Max's part that he was still traumatized and not ready to try again with chicks, I finally resolved to at least get the permit, leaving open the option that we could, collectively, decide the time had come.
Last Monday morning I stopped off at City Hall with my completed permit application, written permission from the neighbors, a (very lame) drawing of the backyard depicting the location of the coop and my $25 check. I was directed to the "chicken person" who seemed doubtful about my "practical difficulty" which gave me a sinking feeling. He promised to go look at it, though. After a couple of calls which were necessary to clear up confusion about which nascent structure was the chicken coop (don't ask), I knew I was in trouble when the chicken person informed me that it was his boss who made the final decision about whether or not to grant the variance. He was already shifting the blame for what he knew was going to be an adverse decision. Ugh.
Sure enough, the call came back from the chicken person: denied. I asked to speak with the boss. He was unsympathetic to my plight. He asserted that granting my variance would be "against the spirit of what the City Council intended" and suggested that maybe I should have waited to start building until after the ordinance was passed and I got my permit. Well, duh. He also seemed unmoved by my suggestion that the City could lend me a forklift to help with the relocation.
I contemplated, for about 45 seconds, an appeal. I considered how the Missouri Administrative Procedure Act might apply to my particular situation. I envisioned introducing legislative history to counter the claim that my variance would somehow defile the spirit of the ordinance. I sighed heavily. Then Hank, ever the voice of reason, said, "Let's just move it and do everything by the book. That's how we win." And of course he was right.
I've had several volunteers to help move the coop and it looks like we'll have a coop-moving this coming Saturday. I figure with 8 strong people we can shift it without too much injury to anyone. We'll have to take down a section of fence, which is manageable. But the question remained: where should it go?
Yesterday, Hank and I took the tape measure out into the yard. We chose a spot where it will still get a good amount of sun during the winter and will be well-shaded during the height of summer. We will orient it the same way, with big windows facing south and east. And the run will still go off to the north. And it will be fully compliant with the setbacks. But the new spot was far from level, of course.
So today we were out again with our shovel and rake, digging out and leveling the new coop site. It was a familiar exercise. Maddy once again reveled in our presence in her yard, engaged, for once, in something she could totally relate to. Again, she did some digging of her own, in solidarity. And when we were through, this is what we had:
If any of you are free on Saturday around 4:30 in the afternoon, come on by and help with the big move. Refreshments will be supplied!