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.