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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This Year’s Flu Season Came Early and Hit Hard

It starts with chills pulsating throughout the body, accompanied by a hot forehead, sore throat and running nose. The body feels aches comparable to those incurred from being tackled by the University of Georgia’s entire defensive line. The only hope left is to sink into bed with no intention of returning to reality, but sleep is forbidden by a steady stream of coughing fits and one is left utterly miserable.

It is flu season and the symptoms above are those most commonly related to influenza virus.

This year’s flu season came early and swept the nation, claiming lives and sending a large number of people to the hospital. In Georgia similar levels of elevated flu activity occurred throughout the state, particularly local influenza activity.

According to a statement from the Georgia Department of Health, “Influenza (flu) is hitting Georgia harder this season than at any time in the past 10 years.”

Patrick O’Neal, M.D., the director of the Division of Health Protection for the Georgia Department of Public Health said, in a press release in January, that flu activity in Georgia reached “epidemic levels” this flu season.

So far this flu season, Georgia reported four flu-related deaths. Including one flu-related death in the Athens area, according to the Athens Banner Herald.

The Center of Disease Control, CDC, reported a total of 59 flu-related pediatric deaths this flu season, as of February 2nd, nearly double the total flu-related pediatric deaths that occurred during the 2011-2012 flu season. The total number flu-related deaths among adults were not reported.

February brought lower levels of flu than early flu season, but the CDC reports that influenza activity remains elevated across the country.

Georgia’s peak weeks of flu activity matched the national trend, with the highest levels of flu reported the last two weeks of December through the first two weeks of January.

“It’s likely that the worst of the current flu season is over,” CDC spokesman Tom Skinner told the Associated Press. The Georgia Department of Public Health still warns that, “given the early and intense start of this flu season, it could last longer this year,” according to a statement on their website.

Flu season last from late November through March so there remains time for a second surge of flu this season.

Lynn Beckmann, Northeast Georgia’s Public Health Department’s infectious disease coordinator said in an email, “I can tell you, anecdotally, that I was getting reports rather early this year, even as early as mid Sept., that [flu] cases were being seen in the community.”

The Athens Banner Herald reported early in January that local hospitals, St. Mary’s Healthcare and Athens Regional Medical center, “have collectively tested more than 4,000 people for flu and nearly 20 percent of those tests came back as positive.”

The best defense against the flu is to get a yearly vaccine, according to the CDC.

Emily Cox a third year student at the University of Georgia who lives in Athens described her experience receiving the flu shoot,“I got my shot at Kroger, I just went in to the pharmacy area and asked if I could get a flu shot and they were like sure.” Cox said she was encouraged by her mom to get a flu shot but she thinks it is very important to get a flu shot every year. Cox got her flu shot in November of 2012 and said she has not gotten the flu this flu season.

“The flu vaccine is safe and effective, although probably not as effective as we once thought in the elderly due to a decreased immune response,” said Mark Ebell, an associate professor of Epidemiology at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health.

Athens physicians’ offices, the Public Health Department and local drug stores administer vaccines locally.

Jim Stowe, a local pharmacist, works at Horton’s Drugstore in the HealthMart Pharmacy located in downtown Athens. When asked about flu vaccinations administered by Horton’s Drugstore this year, Stowe said he saw trends similar to statewide reports.

“Once we had that first little surge, particularly out west of [flu]cases showing up, it became where everyone was like I have been putting it [getting a flu shot] off long enough,” said Stowe about the Athens’ residents’ response to national reports of elevated levels of flu this season.

Horton’s Pharmacy worked with local banks and parishes, to put on health days that provided vaccines to a large number of people at one time.

“It’s been kind of one of those things where you just try to find out where the need is and just get folks together so you can try to do it all at one time,” said Stowe about vaccinations in the Athens community. “You definitely also have people walk in the door who say they want to get their shot.”

In regards to getting vaccinated Stowe advised, “It’s a personal decision for everybody.” A person’s decision to get vaccinated depends on, “contact and your personal history, some people are more susceptible due to preexisting conditions, to age limitations, to exposure to these particular strains in previous years that don’t have any immunity to that one.”

Horton’s Drugstore is still administering this year’s flu vaccine and has a prescribing physician on staff that administers the flu shots.

Each flu season is different and the severity of the virus is unpredictable. The CDC estimates that anywhere from 5% to 20% of U.S. residents contract the flu each year.

The flu vaccine is the most effective method in preventing the flu, and those who have not received this year’s flu vaccine should take extra precautions to protect themselves and prevent the spread of flu.

Suggested methods of prevention include, hand-washing, avoiding touching the face and mouth, covering one’s mouth to sneeze or cough and avoiding those infected with the flu.