Cluck! Group pushes hen idea

Gary B. Gray • Jan 19, 2012 at 10:37 PM

Score one for the chickens.

About 50 people bent on shining a light on the benefits of hen ownership Thursday night convinced most Johnson City Commissioners that current laws on the books should be redrafted to accommodate the animals within the city limits.

It took nearly two years, hundreds of signatures, detailed research and a lot of determination, but the group, Chickens On Our Property, flooded commission chambers and outlined flaws in current city code that convinced even City Manager Pete Peterson that the group’s ideas were sound.

“At first blush, I think getting Animal Control involved in this is a good idea,” Peterson said following a thorough recital of current code by COOP co-founder Emily Katt that showed a “health official” is responsible for enforcing current code — a code which prohibits any fowl or poultry at the discretion of said health official.

But the city doesn’t have a health official — not when it comes to the enforcement and control of “animals, fowl, swine or poultry.” The city’s Codes Enforcement has been doing that job, and Katt argued that perhaps a member of Animal Control would be helpful in clearing up the inconsistency.

“We’re trying to find a compromise for people who want to keep hens,” Katt told commissioners. “We agree with city code. What we don’t agree with is the way it’s being enforced.”

Katt made three proposals: 1) have an educated and trained health officer make the judgment calls when warranted, 2) amend city code to state that it is the responsibility of an animal control officer to deal with enforcement, and 3) create a new ordinance to ensure pet hen owners have the same rights and responsibilities of other pet owners.

The city has received several requests from citizens living in residential areas within the city who would like to raise and keep chickens at their homes. Their logic is that home-raised chickens produce organic eggs and meat and are free from chemicals, steroids and unclean feed that may be used in the mass production of the animals.

But the 2010 version of the City Commission shot down the idea of keeping chickens in residentially zoned areas. The city’s zoning law only allows poultry in A-1, an agricultural district. On the other hand, city code allows some chickens and chicken coops with the blessing of a “health officer.”

And there’s the rub.

On Wednesday, chickens, long forbidden in Nashville’s urban precincts, got a reprieve when its Metro Council voted 21-15 to allow residents to raise hens in their back yards. People there living in residential zoning districts can keep up to two, four or six chickens, depending on the size of their property, for an annual permit fee of $25. Chickens aren’t allowed in front yards, and roosters are prohibited.

Peterson said city staff will be going over ways to make something like this happen. Still, COOP is not likely to get everything they’re asking for.

Vice Mayor Phil Carriger, who voted nay in 2010, said he’d do the same when a vote comes before commissioners.

“I think what we’re going to be doing is creating another nuisance,” he said. “Surveys I’ve seen — and they’re not very scientific — showed two-thirds of people were against it, and I’ll vote against it.”

Carriger asked Katt, “Would you be willing to pay for the expense of a health officer?”

“I would think the city would supply that position,” she answered.

Commissioner Clayton Stout said he would support the group.

Mayor Jeff Banyas, who voted against changing the code in 2010, was still leery of the idea.

“My concern is this: If someone wants to raise chickens, I don’t care. What I do care about are the neighbors.”

Commissioner Jane Myron confirmed her support for the group saying, “Their passion is contagious.”

Meanwhile, commissioners unanimously approved on second reading the annexation of 64 acres along U.S. 11E in Sullivan County. A public hearing drew no naysayers. Steve Ellis with Highlands Engineering, which has prepared plans for residential development on a 20-acre tract of the annexed land stood at the podium Thursday with landowner Wade Hughes by his side.

“We’ve had productive conversations with the city, and we’re OK with this,” Ellis said.

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