Backyard chicken keeping to be topic for another County Commission discussion in about 60 days

Board votes 4-1 March 8 to ask staff to compile more material on the issue, along with suggestions for Zoning Code changes

Debate continues over allowing backyard chickens in unincorporated parts of Sarasota County. Photo by David Monniaux via Wikimedia Commons
Debate continues over allowing backyard chickens in unincorporated parts of Sarasota County. Photo by David Monniaux via Wikimedia Commons

In an effort to avoid writing an ordinance themselves during a public discussion, the Sarasota County commissioners voted 4-1 this week to have staff come back with another report — within 60 days — incorporating information for them to consider in creating a program that would allow people to keep backyard chickens in designated areas.

The material will include proposed changes in the county’s Zoning Code, according to the motion.

Commissioner Carolyn Mason framed the motion on the basis of a recommendation in a February 2015 report to the board: “Staff will await further Board discussion and direction regarding any future changes to the Zoning Code that will create a program that allows backyard chickens in designated RSF [residential single-family] areas,” though she noted Chair Al Maio’s preference to allow leeway for areas other than those zoned RSF.

In response to a question from Commissioner Charles Hines, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh said the new staff analysis could incorporate a recommendation about which zoning districts would be best suited for people to keep chickens.

“I want staff to bring us back some options and then we can decide whether to set [this] for public hearing,” Mason added.

Commissioner Christine Robinson opposed the motion, saying that representatives of CLUCK (Citizens Lobbying for Chicken Keeping) have failed to answer all the questions she has posed to them in their quest to make backyard chickens legal in unincorporated parts of the county. CLUCK also has not undertaken sufficient outreach to neighborhoods that are not deed-restricted, she said. Furthermore, “I can’t ignore the financial impact,” Robinson told her colleagues.

Commissioner Carolyn Mason. File photo
Commissioner Carolyn Mason. File photo

Earlier, Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo alluded to a memo the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office provided to the board. Dated March 4, it went from Lt. Scott Ortner to Capt. John Jernigan. If backyard chickens were legalized, Ortner wrote, “I believe this would create significant consequences for Animal Services [a division of the Sheriff’s Office]; including but not limited to facilities, staffing, financing and training.”

Caragiulo also suggested the staff report encompass any information the Department of Health in Sarasota County may be able to provide in regard to concerns about the keeping of chickens.

The background

Included in the backup agenda material for the discussion was a copy of a Feb. 18, 2015 report the board had commissioned on the topic. That document says that on Dec. 9, 2014, the board asked County Administrator Tom Harmer to have staff research regulations in neighboring jurisdictions, as well as how potential Zoning Code changes would affect deed-restricted communities.

The report notes that on Sept. 25, 2012, the commission approved a motion for the chair to send an email to CLUCK “requesting communication with Homeowners Associations, Neighborhood Associations, and Community Organizations in an attempt to obtain Community support for the allowance of backyard chickens in the County …” Although that communication was sent, the memo continues, “no further information or evidence of support from the community was received from CLUCK.”

Then a county Code Enforcement case dated Aug. 19, 2014 resulted in a renewal of residents’ requests to keep backyard chickens legally, the report continues. That Code Enforcement case, the report explains, “revealed an aspect of the [issue that] had not been previously addressed”: The defendant had enrolled the family chickens in the county’s Sentinel Chicken program, which is used by the Mosquito Control Department to monitor mosquito-borne illnesses. County regulations do not provide any exemption for the Sentinel Chicken program, the report says, so the keeping of the family’s backyard chickens violated the Zoning Code.

The report also points out that the keeping of chickens is considered an agricultural use and, therefore, is allowed only in the county’s Open Use Agriculture, Open Use Mining, Open Use Rural, Open Use Estates and Residential Estates zoning districts, with limitations.

“Since 2005,” the report continues, “Code Enforcement has received 102 complaints involving backyard chickens, of which 97 have resulted in Zoning Code violations.”

The county's 2012 Annual Report included this logo for the Sentinel Chickens program. Image courtesy Sarasota County
The county’s 2012 Annual Report included this logo for the Sentinel Chickens program. Image courtesy Sarasota County

When staff researched practices in adjoining jurisdictions, the report notes, it found that the majority of them do not allow backyard chickens to be kept in single-family zoning districts. However, Manatee, Lee, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Charlotte counties have Sentinel Chicken programs “and have allowed the placement of coops throughout their counties with no exemptions provided in their Zoning regulations,” the report says.

Additionally, the City of Sarasota adopted an ordinance in 2011 to allow the keeping of backyard chickens, the report says. The city subsequently recorded 21 verified complaints, the report continues, according to information available prior to the report’s preparation. Seven dealt generally with chickens, the report notes, while the others were specifically about roosters, “which are prohibited via the city ordinance.”

The report explains that if the County Commission did approve an ordinance allowing backyard chickens, “and a specific community had deed restrictions prohibiting [them], the deed restrictions will prevail with any enforcement being the responsibility of the specific community.”

Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo. File photo
Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo. File photo

Moreover, the report says, while the desire to allow the keeping of chickens on residential property “appears to be on an upswing nationally,” issues have arisen about regulating roosters, because when chicks are purchased, a small percentage of them are roosters, and “sex determination of chicks is difficult.” The report points out that “Animal Control does not accept chickens,” and diseases “are also found in chickens.”

The March 4 Sheriff’s Office memo notes a “[d]ramatic increase in chickens being surrendered to Animal Services” in recent years. “Chickens will only lay eggs for 18-24 months but can live for ten years,” it says. “A lot of citizens do not want the chickens after they are done laying eggs and will surrender/abandon them,” the memo continues. “Many of these chickens end up in shelters that are designed and built to house domestic animals only resulting in a high euthanasia rate.”

The Sheriff’s Office memo adds that research has shown that each coop that would have to be added to the animal shelter to house chickens “would easily cost” between $2,000 and $3,000. Moreover, it notes, space is limited at the shelter, so staff has no idea where the coops could be erected.

Public comments

During the Open to the Public portion of the board’s morning session on March 8, three speakers addressed the keeping of backyard chickens.

Jennifer Ziegler told the board that she and her family bought property five years ago in a community without deed restrictions so she and her husband could teach their children about sustainability. In researching chickens on the Internet, she said, the only local ordinance they found was the one for the City of Sarasota, which they mistakenly thought applied to the county. “Ignorance is not an excuse,” she acknowledged.

Nonetheless, the family put in a small coop.

Jono Miller. File photo
Jono Miller. File photo

A few weeks ago, she said, a county employee visited the family and told them the chickens were not allowed under the Zoning Code, “and we’re left with no options.”

Jono Miller of Sarasota, one of the founders of CLUCK, told the board, “No pet gives more and asks less in return than a chicken.” He added that the Zoning Code allows people to keep all sorts of exotic creatures in the unincorporated parts of the county — invasive fish, rabbits, tarantulas, venomous reptiles and hissing cockroaches among them — but not chickens.

He presented what he referenced as the “fifth installment of signatures from an online petition” calling for a backyard chicken program, saying he believed the count was 1,268 after disallowing signatures of Englewood residents who live in Charlotte County instead of Sarasota County.

After a two-year trial period, when the Sarasota City Commission prepared to vote on allowing backyard chickens, he continued, no person appeared to object.

“I think we have demonstrated that the support is there,” Miller added. “This does not need to be a contentious issue.”

The board discussion

When Commissioner Mason brought up the matter this week, she told her colleagues, “I would like to see us move forward on this,” but she wanted their thoughts, first.

“I do think this needs to be addressed,” Vice Chair Caragiulo replied, “whether it’s a thumbs up or a thumbs down.” He added, “Let’s do our best to address … concerns in the appropriate manner. I’m certainly not in favor of having an 11- or 12-hour meeting to [discuss] an issue that’s been swimming around for quite some time.”

Caragiulo was alluding to the new retail pet ordinance discussion — and eventual commission vote — on Jan. 27, which were part of an all-day board meeting.

County Administrator Tom Harmer talks with County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh. Rachel Hackney photo
County Administrator Tom Harmer talks with County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh. Rachel Hackney photo

County Administrator Harmer said he understood the board wants to discuss the issue, however, before authorizing staff to prepare an ordinance for public advertisement.

“Let’s make sure it’s hitting all the concerns,” Caragiulo said of the next staff report, adding, though, “I don’t think we need to rewrite reports and turn this into the Marshall Plan.”

“We should be the ones putting together the different elements of that ordinance before we authorize to advertise,” Commissioner Robinson pointed out. Referring to the retail pet ordinance, she noted, “We skipped to the end and discovered we left people out,” which almost certainly will lead to amending that law in the future.

“I will rely on our professional staff to come up with some actionable or moderately adjustable items” for discussion, Caragiulo replied.
“This commissioner is not voting for something that doesn’t give [homeowners associations] the right to opt out,” Chair Maio said.

Right,” Mason responded.