Coming Home to Roost (but no Roosters)

Backyard-chicken advocates encountered what Pensacola City Council President Sam Hall termed “a friendly council” Monday. The board unanimously decided to instruct city staff to explore loosening ordinances pertaining to raising chickens in city neighborhoods.

The council was presented last night with a potential rewrite of city ordinances that address the matter. The city’s code enforcement department, along with local backyard-chicken advocates, hammered out the potential language.

“This is not an ordinance that we’re saying is ready for passage,” City Administrator Bill Reynolds told the council. “This is a talking point …  this is the start of the discussion.”

Presently, a majority of city residences are not able to keep chickens on their property due to ordinances that require the fowl be kept in an enclosure at least 50 feet away from any structure, including the resident’s own house. Most city properties cannot meet such a requirement.

The changes presented to council members during their Committee of the Whole meeting Monday include allowing chickens to freely roam a backyard and allows for coops to be placed anywhere on one’s property as long as it is 50 feet away from adjacent dwellings. The potential rewrite also specifies the number of chickens a person may keep.

Chicken advocates have argued that existing ordinances need to be reexamined in the face of the country’s backyard-farming trend. They contend that keeping chickens within the city limits does not raise anymore issues than keeping dogs, and also allows people to have a constant supply of fresh eggs.

“Education is probably our best tool,” said Paul Darling, an East Hill resident whose run-in with code enforcement has cast a spotlight on the issue.

During Monday’s COW meeting, Darling was joined by other local chicken enthusiasts. President Hall asked for a show of hands from those wanting the ordinances changed.

“That’s practically the whole audience out there,” he noted.

In addition to members of the public, council also heard from Dr. John Lanza, head of the Escambia County Health Department. Board members had previously expressed concern about the possible health ramifications of chickens in residential areas.

Dr. Lanza told the council that most health-related issues concerning chickens come into play at much larger, factory farm operations. He said that residents keeping a small number of chickens posed “very little or no public health issues.”

“It’s mainly aesthetic issues,” Dr. Lanza said.

The ordinance-rewrite presented to council stipulated that residents could keep eight chickens. When asked how that number was arrived at, advocates said it was more political than scientific.

“Frankly, it was a political calculation,” a member of the audience told the council. “It was a number we thought we could get.”

The council briefly considered enacting a moratorium on enforcing the current code until the issue was settled, but then decided to scrap that idea after City Attorney Jim Messer said that such a move could “open Pandora’s Box.”

“When you start passing moratoriums it can get a little tricky out there,” Messer said.

Steve Wernicke, head of the city’s code enforcement department, agreed.

“Moratoriums can be a slippery slope,” he said.

The council then decided the issue should be resolved in a fairly timely manner.

“I think we’re close to working back and forth on it a few times and making a decision sometime this summer,” said Councilwoman Maren DeWesse.

Reynolds jokingly requested that the council keep him in mind when making a decision on the ordinance. He said his sons—who already care for goldfish, turtles and dogs—would soon realize they can keep chickens as pets.

In the end, council requested that staff get back to them with a rewrite that limited the number of chickens to eight, disallowed roosters, allowed free range of backyards with a coop—no closer than 50 feet from an adjacent dwelling—for nighttime roosting. Council also instructed staff to look at striking a current aspect of city code that allows for law enforcement officers to shoot pigeons and doves.

Councilwoman Sheri Myers—who has worked with backyard chicken enthusiasts throughout this process—also stipulated that the rewritten ordinance should not allow for the slaughter of backyard chickens. She said that residents should be keeping chickens for their eggs and as pets, not food.

“What about when they stop laying?” asked Hall. “Could you bake them then?”

Myers said such actions—slaughtering chickens for food—would conflict with existing animal cruelty laws.