A proposed ordinance for “backyard chickens” in Burlington has touched off some free-range speculation among the city’s leaders about the potential proliferation of poultry in the community.
This hypothetical boom in hen husbandry raised quite a flap on Monday when Burlington’s city council reviewed some suggested rules for backyard chicken coops that the city’s planning staff had drawn up at the council’s direction.
The city’s planning manager Conrad Olmedo had drafted these prospective guidelines in response to several requests that Burlington received earlier this year to relax its long-standing prohibition on farm fowl so that residents could raise small flocks of chickens behind their homes. These requests triggered an avalanche of mainly positive feedback, which convinced the council to have a new ordinance roughed out based on regulations in other cities and towns.
The ordinance that Olmedo pitched to the council on Monday would allow residents in most single-family residential zones to keep up to four chickens in well-tended coops. In order to avail themselves of this opportunity, homeowners would have to obtain permits and submit plans for their proposed chicken enclosures and coops, which would be treated as accessory structures under the ordinance.
The proposed ordinance also includes some precise specifications for chicken coops, along with setbacks and other rules for their placement and additional regulations to ensure that the chickens are treated humanely and pose a minimal nuisance to neighbors.
After Olmedo’s presentation on Monday, the council decided to reduce the planning manager’s proposed setbacks for chicken coops from 25 to 5 feet from the property line. A majority of the council agreed to proceed with this change in spite of a vigorous protest from councilman Harold Owen, who feared that the reduced setbacks would allow “chickens and dogs to live five feet from each other.”
The debate over the ordinance continued to intensify as the council considered the staffing levels necessary to enforce the proposed regulations.
Olmedo had told the council that the proposed ordinance would be jointly enforced by the city’s code enforcement and animal control officers. He said that the role of code enforcement would be to oversee the size, placement, and security of chicken enclosures; the sale of meat, eggs, and manure; the slaughter of chickens; and the sanitary conditions of coops. Olmedo added that that the city’s animal services division would enforce the ordinance’s four chicken limit, while addressing complaints about animal welfare and cruelty, obnoxious odors, excessive noises, free-roaming hens, and illegal roosters, which would remain prohibited under the ordinance.
The council received some additional input from the city’s animal services director Jessica Arias, who said that her division’s two-person enforcement detail is already spread thin without the added responsibility for policing poultry.
“We still have only two field officers serving the entire city,” Arias said before she suggested that the council sign off on some additional officers. “It is something that’s a need for us,” she added, “to have those animal services field officers…regardless of the chicken ordinance.”
Arias’ caveat about her division’s existing workload raised a conundrum for Burlington’s mayor pro tem Kathy Hykes.
“It seems like there’s a need [for a new field officer] in animal control,” Hykes told her colleagues, “and the chicken ordinance is being predicated on whether we can hire an animal control person.”
The need for additional staff also vexed the mayor pro tem’s colleagues once they turned their attention to the community’s pent-up demand for backyard chickens.
The number of residents who may seek permits to keep chickens initially defied Olmedo’s powers of prognostication. The council nevertheless received some predictions from Burlington’s city manager Hardin Watkins, who acknowledged that the question had come up in a recent staff-level discussion.
“There was a handful of staff in that conversation,” he added, “and we were thinking a hundred [permit requests] – maybe. Or if we missed it by half – two hundred.”
Olmedo assured the council that these three-figure estimates were more of a thought experiment than a realistic projection of the demand for backyard chickens. He acknowledged, however, that about 780 people had voiced their support for chicken coops in a recent survey of area residents.
“Maybe we’ll have a day when we have 500 people at the gates wanting chickens,” the city’s planning manager added as he considered the survey’s results.
“Are you prepared for 700 people?” councilman Jim Butler went on to inquire.
“I’ll be working weekends possibly,” Olmedo replied.
In any event, Olmedo told the council that the proposed ordinance would need to go before the city’s planning and zoning commission before the council can hold a public hearing about backyard chickens. He added that the council could hold a hearing on February 16 if the planning commission signs off on the ordinance at its next monthly meeting.