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Chicken ordinance workshop causes flap among commissioners

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Neither, it was an ordinance workshop held by Plumas County Planning Commissioners.

Although only three commissioners were present to weigh in on a debate concerning a new backyard chicken ordinance, the discussion went on for nearly an hour-and-a-half Thursday, April 4.

No members of the public were present to see what might hatch.

Although Plumas County Assistant Planner Tim Evans researched and prepared recommendations, commissioners, Planning Director Randy Wilson and Assistant Planning Director Becky Herrin, and Deputy County Council Gretchen Stuhr also went through his proposal. And parts of it didn’t seem to come up to scratch.

Chickens are presently allowed and will probably continue to rule the roost in single-family residential lots in unincorporated areas in Plumas County. Chickens are not allowed at multi-family dwellings and no restrictions are placed on country chickens.

“The purpose of this article is to define standards that regulate the keeping of chickens on single-family residential parcels, while protecting the health, safety and welfare of the community,” Evans stated in the purpose of revisiting an ordinance under Sec. 9-2.4301.

Up to a dozen chickens are currently allowed in single-family residential zones rated 2-R, 3-R and 7-R.

Backyard chickens means just that, chickens are allowed, but other fowl including peacocks, turkeys or waterfowl are not allowed, according to Evan’s report.

And there is some terminology Evans believed should be known. This includes chicken coop, chicken run, rooster and single-family residential — just to be clear.

The workshop included these terms that are all associated with particular requirements or regulations.

Although much discussion took place concerning how many chickens residents should be allowed to keep and the size of the parcel, Evans started the workshop recommending that two chickens should be permitted for a single-family residential area on one-seventh of an acre.

Evans also suggested that the maximum number allowed on larger parcels should not exceed 12.

Sec. 9-2.4306 covers suggestions for keeping backyard chickens or rather the general requirements.

Evans suggested eight areas under general requirements: 1) The raising of backyard chickens shall only be allowed on properties containing a single-family dwelling with a fenced rear yard area; 2) Chickens shall be provided with a covered roosting area (called a chicken coop or coop) and an enclosed area in which chickens are allowed to walk and run (called a chicken run); 3) Chickens shall be contained within the coop or run at all times; 4) The chicken coop and chicken run shall be designed and maintained to be well drained on the owner’s property. There shall be no standing water; 5) The chicken coop and chicken run shall be predator-proof from the sides, top and bottom, and be built for the purpose of protecting the backyard chickens from predators including raccoons, dogs, bears and other animals; 6) All grains or other loose feed must be stored in containers with tightly fitting lids to prevent the entrance of vermin; 7) Animal waste must be removed and disposed of: (i) No person who owns or controls land shall allow any animal waste, including manure, urine and defecations to accumulate on the land and cause a public or private nuisance or a danger to public health, such as fly-breeding conditions and offensive odors. As necessary, property owners shall be subject to the requirements of Plumas County Code Sec. 6-10.117 on animal waste; 8) Backyard chickens and their eggs are to be used for domestic uses only.

Evans also visited chicken coop design requirements for backyard chickens. All chickens shall be housed in a coop that is designed to be predator proof, watertight, thoroughly ventilated, easily accessed and cleaned, contain one nesting box with no less than 1 cubic foot for every four chickens, contain a coop area of no less than 6 square feet per chicken excluding nesting boxes, and contain the chicken roost, feeder and water.

Also under design features, Evans initially suggested that the chicken run should be attached to the chicken coop allowing the chickens direct access to and from the chicken coop. The run must be predator proof, thoroughly ventilated, easily accessed and cleaned, fenced with materials to sufficiently contain the chickens, and constructed with an area of no less than 10 square feet per chicken.

Evans also discussed regulations for the chicken yard. For front yards, the chicken coop and run shall be located on the rear of the property and behind the residence. For parcels that have a frontage on two sides, the coop and run shall be located on the rear portion of the property that is opposite the side providing street access, with the remaining front having a minimum front yard setback of 25 feet from the property line. For side and rear yards, the coop and run must be located at least 20 feet from the nearest adjoining residence or 10 feet from any property line, whichever is greater.

And finally, Evans discussed height requirements. The chicken coop and run shall not exceed 7 feet in height, which is in keeping with the new regulation on fence height.

Evans also went over prohibited uses for backyard chickens. Commercial sales of chicken eggs, slaughtering processes, and roosters are not allowed.

The discussion

Electricity requirements that the owner might have in the coop was one of the first discussion items. Wilson said that it seems that some backyard chicken owners seem to add electricity on the fly. Someone runs in an extension cord and an electric light is added. A chief concern is that light bulbs get hot and there is often hay or straw present.

Herrin pointed out that electric lighting in a coop is in the existing building code permit process.

There are several reasons why someone might want light inside the coop. They might want to better see inside, and some might want light to lengthen the natural laying time of hens. Evans, who owns chickens but is outside a residential area, said that he doesn’t use the lighting technique to extend the laying season. His hens lay fewer eggs in the winter and that’s the way it is.

Slaughtering also came into the discussion. Vice-chairperson John Olofson, who was filling in for chairperson Robert Abbott, said that times have changed. “My memory is not perfect, I admit,” he said, “but when we wanted chicken for dinner, someone went out and got a chicken in the morning.” That person then tied it to the kitchen stove by one leg and when that individual was ready he took it outside and killed it.

But this isn’t permitted in a single-family residential area. The Plumas County Environmental Health Department has specific requirements for slaughtering chickens, especially when it’s for commercial purposes. Environmental Health Director Jerry Sipe went over the planning department’s new suggested ordinance with his own recommendations.

As various parts of the proposed ordinance were discussed, Commissioner Jeff Greening kept saying that he wanted to see fewer guidelines, not more. He said he likes to see chickens roaming here and there in the Chester area. He likes to see a turkey come out of the bank and greet people.

When it comes to roosters, Greening said that his cockatoo “can shatter crystal and there’s no ordinance.”

And as various aspects were discussed, both Wilson and Herrin reminded commissioners that the proposed ordinance is there when they get complaints from people about roosters, or flies or the odor. Wilson said that it’s important to have a policy in place that can be held up to the judge should something end up in court. “It puts some side rails on it in case there are some complaints,” Wilson said.

Wilson also compared the issue with backyard chickens to that of growing cannabis — there’s the smell.

At one point, planners were asked about their research. Wilson said that some of it came from what is being done in Nevada City.

Greening said that there was a big push to have chickens in Chico years ago. He said there were no complaints, not even over roosters talking.

“We had them in Hamilton Branch,” Herrin countered.

“If you want San Francisco, then move back to San Francisco,” Greening said about people who move to rural areas with city expectations.

At one point when planning staff and commissioners were discussing the number of chickens someone should be allowed, Greening said, “What the hell difference (is there) between two chickens, or seven or eight or 23?”

At one point Wilson suggested that four chickens were enough, but then Greening said what about six chickens? Greening suggested “asking more chicken people” their opinions. He added that just one chicken is enough to lure a critter (predator), if that is a concern.  Evans said that more chickens could mean that the area might be a little noisier.

Olofson suggested that people who are thinking about raising backyard chickens could discuss it with their neighbors first. Wilson, however, suggested a little caution with that approach. “The neighbor thing causes conflicts,” he said.

Wilson said that he’s seen people “hold each other hostage” over past agreements and that’s why having a zoning requirement and “a zoning administrator sitting in the middle that makes it work.”

Greening said that he found it difficult to see anyone getting real benefit from having less than a half-dozen chickens.

Herrin said she had a neighbor who had two or three and they produced enough eggs to live on.

Greening was also curious about the commercial sale of eggs. Herrin said that people who want to sell eggs have to register with Environmental Health. She added that raising chickens is expensive and people are better off financially buying their eggs at the store. But then homegrown eggs are a better quality.

As the discussion ebbed and flowed around how many chickens people could have, Olofson asked Herrin, “In the course of the year, how many problems do you have either as a neighbor or a planner?”

“I have calls all the time,” Herrin said. Most people want information and don’t want to file a complaint, but yet there are complaints. She said that she doesn’t keep track of the number of calls or the number of complaints she receives. “It goes in waves,” she said, and it isn’t chicken season yet this year.

At length, it was determined that a few recommendations could be removed from Evans’ list. Some are answered in other areas, some are covered by other departments.

The proposed ordinance will be brought back to commissioners Thursday, May 2, at 10 a.m., in the Planning Commission meeting room in Quincy.

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