Backyard chickens may be coming to Athens soon

By Evelyn Andrews

Jonathan McCombs has no backyard, so even the proposed ordinance to allow “backyard chickens” would not help him, the catalyst for the controversy.

“Where would I put the chickens?” McCombs said at the Athens-Clarke County Planning Commission meeting on April 2.

This problem of vagueness in Athens-Clarke County ordinances will be the subject to another change, which was also addressed at Thursday’s meeting. Some criticize ACC’s definition of agriculture has been criticized as being too broad, including members of the planning commission* at the meeting.

The definition of agriculture could be understood as restricting every gardening activity, the members said.

The new proposed definition has specific allowed behaviors for citizens, although this item did become a source of a lengthy argument among planning commission members at the meeting.

The current ordinance does not allow people to have chickens except in certain zones that the majority of people do not live in. The proposed ordinance would allow the animals in any zoning district with a limit of six chickens and prohibits roosters since they crow.

McCombs began the backyard chicken controversy after being cited in 2013 for having chickens. Athens is among several cities in Georgia that does not allow urban chickens, so McCombs was forced to get rid of them.

He, like several other supporters of backyard chickens, said he uses the chickens for fertilizer and eggs. McCombs prefers to eat organic food but cannot afford it on his graduate student budget, so he began raising chickens when he was in school in Austin, Texas, where urban chickens are allowed, he said in a Flagpole Magazine article.

Although McCombs was the case that convinced the government to draft a proposal, Mary and Michael Songster are the beginning of the movement for urban chickens in Athens.

“We are the genesis of the pro-chicken movement,” Mary Songster said.

The Songsters had four hens seven years ago, were caught and had to get rid of the chickens. Mary Songster had to sign something saying she was guilty of this offense, but she never felt guilty or that owning chickens was wrong. This began her questioning of why the rule banning chickens exists.

After several years, the Songsters hit a dead end and could not make any headway to get the city to draft a proposal they could agree on.

So it was “huge” when McCombs was caught owning chickens. McCombs volunteered to be cited so he could fight the charge in court, opening the door for a stronger case to allow chickens.

“It was a tremendous show of bravery and strength that he allowed himself to be ticketed,” Songster said.

A friend of the Songsters represented McCombs, they had a strong case and were again able to open the conservation with the city to allow chickens.

“That was huge, that changed everything,” Songster said.

Although the process of introducing proposals to allow urban chickens has been long, no planning commission members expressed any doubt that they should allow the chickens.

People often complain the noise and waste chickens produce are reasons to ban them, but citizen Greg Riley disavowed that complaint at the meeting, comparing them to dogs.

“When you treat them well, they are a wonderful addition to a neighborhood,” Riley said.

Raising backyard chickens is also community building, Songster said, because working outside with them gives people an opportunity to interact with their neighbors. Additionally, working with chickens allows her to understand where her food comes in a profound way.

“Instead of just going to the grocery store to get your food, which I still do and I still plan to spend plenty of money in the system,” Songster said, “having a hand in it gives you a wholeness in life that you can’t duplicate.”

Some other urban chicken supporters expressed concern over the requirement in the proposal that restricts chicken owners from crafting a coup out of spare material. People who want to have chickens are often motivated by sustainability and will want this to be evident in their coup,Songster said. People who cannot afford new materials will be unable to have chickens, she said.

Also, this problem is self-correcting, Songster said. She speculates the regulation was produced by concerns that coups built with scrap material would look unsightly, but she said the amount of money spent on coups will correlate with the type of neighborhood they live in and will be appropriate for their neighborhood.

The rule is also difficult to enforce, Songster said, because leftover material from a recent building project could be considered scrap material, even if it is in the exact same condition you could buy from a store.

“You have this really loose determination of what scrap material is,” she said.

The planning commission considered requiring neighbor approval before people could own chickens. This is problematic, Songster said, because neighbors should not be given authority over other people.

The planning commission did bend to these complaints by chicken supporters and will not require neighbor approval, which was an optional standard. Additionally, they agreed to add side yards to the allowed spaces for chickens to help cases like McCombs’.

The commission also grappled with the issue of standardizing space for each chicken. Space restrictions can become an animal control issue, some members noted, something that the commission does not handle.

“It would become an enforcement nightmare,” member Alice Kinman said.

However, planning commission member James Anderson did suggest adding recommendations, possibly in brochures, for people who may not know the recommended amount of space.

This opened up the other issue of whether or not to force residents to come to the Planning Department building to get a permit. Most of the members agree a permit should not be required, but this would stop people from receiving helpful information like the brochures.

The planning commission approved the proposal and it now will move on to the agenda-setting meeting for the Mayor and Commission on Tuesday, Apr. 21, and they are scheduled to vote on the proposal Tuesday, May 5.

Songster said she is “pleased” with the final proposal and hopes it will be approved by the Mayor and Commission.

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Athens taxi drivers support Atlanta Uber lawsuit, cite safety concerns

By Evelyn Andrews

“It was hard to get a ride with Uber when they first came to Athens, but now it’s easier and cheaper than a taxi normally,” said Sydney Browning, who has ridden with the service several times.

Affordability and the easiness of getting a ride with Uber is often cited as a reason people choose the service over traditional taxis, but Uber’s lack of government oversight and background checks has led to some people to question the safeness of using them.

“I did not know that Uber doesn’t have some requirements that taxi drivers have and I do feel a little more worried getting a ride with them now,” Browning, a student at the University of Georgia, said.

Uber, a ride-sharing service, has been expanding across the globe since 2012 and debuted in Athens in August 2014. Uber, a part of the sharing economy such as Airbnb and bike rental services, operates in 55 countries and over 200 cities as of December 2014.

Uber has not been immune to mishaps, including being banned from India after allegations of rape and surge pricing during the hostage crisis in Sydney, Australia. Several taxi cab companies worldwide have sued Uber on the basis that they do not follow regulations. Athens Uber operations also have not been immune to these types of controversies, but no lawsuits have been filed.

“The real question should be is, ‘is it safe?’” said Ted Ledall, a dispatcher for United Taxi Cab in Athens, Georgia. “To be an Uber driver, there are no qualifications.”

Several taxi cab owners and drivers from Atlanta sued the ride-sharing service in September 2014, claiming Uber is operating a taxi service without a license. Many Athens taxi cab owners and drivers agree with their decision and are supporting them, Ledall said.

“We support them 110 percent,” he said.

But taxi companies in Athens are not planning their own lawsuit. Instead, they are relying on Mayor Nancy Denson.

“Everything is on the mayor’s table rights now,” Ledall said.

He said Mayor Denson should require all Uber drivers in Athens to adhere to the same regulation that taxi companies are required to follow. Athens ordinances require taxi cab drivers to receive a background check through the police department and to have a valid driver’s license with no points acquired in order to be issued a taxi license drivers are required to have.

“We check our drivers so much, there is no felonies, nothing in their background,” Ledall said.

However, one in five taxi drivers in Athens have accumulated a number of traffic or other violations within the last 10 years, according to The Red & Black.

No ordinances exist in Athens-Clarke County or state laws in Georgia that stipulate requirements for Uber, but city officials, according to The Red & Black, are reviewing ordinances that could be passed.

Hasan Ahmed, an Athens Uber driver, said the company does have stringent requirements for drivers. They do an internal background check, making sure the drivers have a valid license with a clean record.

“I don’t think you could make the argument that Uber is any less safe than taxis,” Ahmed said.

But some law makers argue that Uber still needs official government regulations, including Rep. Alan Powell (R-Hartwell) who is trying to pass legislation requiring Uber drivers to pass a government background check.

The government also requires taxi drivers to pass a drug test in order to obtain a license. Uber does not make drivers pass these tests, which Browning said is worrying.

Uber drivers are also required to have a car that is less than 10 years old, Ahmed said. Many people have said they feel safer riding with an Uber driver for that reason. Athens’ taxis are often in bad condition, older and poorly maintained, Browning said.

“I have ridden in a few taxis that do not even working gauges for speed and gas before,” she said.

Ledall deflected that argument by arguing that taxis still have more regulation than Uber. Additionally, Uber price gauges riders and charges them exorbitant prices for vomiting in the car, neither of which taxis do, Ledall said.

However, taxis in Athens do not have meters that measure the distant driven and assign a price for the riders. This makes the price taxis drivers tell riders seem arbitrary, Browning said.

No taxi drivers have harassed Ahmed, but he has been stopped by police several times, he said. However, he does not fault the officers, but rather the lack of awareness about the laws guiding Uber.

“Everything is so new and no one really knows what the rules are so sometimes the police just get confused,” Ahmed said.

According to an Athens-Clarke County police report, an Uber driver was stopped by a police officer on Jan. 9 and told to finish the ride and not take any more riders because Uber is not a licensed taxi.

Athens Uber operations has acquired several more drivers since beginning in the city in 2014 and will remain a competitive force against taxis, Ahmed said.

“I think everyone has noticed that they are many more Uber drivers,” Ahmed said.