Backyard chicken ordinance to be focus of public hearings before the County Commission in September and October

Board unanimously approves authorization to advertise the hearings, but Commissioner Christine Robinson reproaches staff for not holding public meetings as the board requested in May

Photo by Thegreenj via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Thegreenj via Wikimedia Commons

On Sept. 20 and Oct. 10, Sarasota County residents finally will have their opportunity to let their voices be heard on whether backyard chickens will be allowed in unincorporated portions of the county.

The unanimous County Commission decision on July 12 to authorize the advertisement of public hearings on those dates came only after Commissioner Christine Robinson chastised staff for not following board direction in May to hold public workshops on proposed provisions of a backyard chicken ordinance.

However, Jono Miller, the leader of Citizens Lobbying for Urban Chicken Keeping (CLUCK), pointed out that he always had felt it would be better for his organization and county staff to be able to talk with residents and property owners about actual draft language of the Zoning Code changes instead of gaining information from them first and then asking the board to set the public hearing dates.

Referencing a map he showed the board earlier in the day, Miller noted, “We weren’t sure until [the June meeting of CLUCK] that people would step forward and volunteer to help with enforcement” of a county ordinance.

Moreover, “We have agreed to work with staff on those presentations,” he added of North and South county workshops set for Aug. 2 and 3, respectively.

Miller also told the board that county staff needed time after that May discussion to clarify with representatives of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office their concerns about enforcement, among other issues.

Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson explained that the Sheriff’s Office — whose Animal Control Division handles nuisance and abuse incidents in the county — is not calling for licensing of backyard chickens, nor is it planning to handle enforcement if the ordinance is approved.

The commissioners also unanimously directed County Administrator Tom Harmer to notify the Barrier Islands League about the July 12 vote, because chicken keeping will be allowed on the keys, as well.

CLUCK's website banner points people to a variety of information. Image from the website
CLUCK’s website banner points people to a variety of information. Image from the website

Miller reported during the public comments portion of the board’s morning session that about 1,430 people have signed petitions asking that the county allow people to keep chickens. He noted that residents legally can keep pets such as exotic fish, hissing cockroaches and venomous snakes, “but not four female chickens.”

Miller told the board, “No pet gives more and asks less in return than a chicken.”

The draft ordinance would permit a maximum of four chickens; roosters would be prohibited. Because the activity would be considered an agricultural use under the county’s Zoning Code, the chickens would be allowed in the Open Use Agriculture, Open Use Mining, Open Use Rural, Open Use Estates and Residential Estates districts, with limitations such as the requirement that chickens be secured in enclosures that are no closer than 10 feet to any residential property line or within 25 feet of any adjacent dwelling.

Following the board’s agreement to authorize advertisement of the public hearings, Miller suggested that if the ordinance wins approval on its second reading in October, the board delay the effective date to Jan. 1, so homeowner associations that wish to change their regulations to prevent chicken keeping would have time to do so.

Earlier, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh explained that the draft ordinance says it will not affect homeowner association regulations, “and it can’t.” Any regulations of existing or new private homeowner associations that prohibit the keeping of chickens “would control,” he pointed out. HOA restrictions “can be more stringent than county zoning codes,” he added.

In response to another concern, Zoning Administrator Thompson noted that if any person keeping chickens decides to give them up, the county’s Mosquito Management Services Department would accept them into the Sentinel Chicken Program, which uses the birds as a means of alerting health officials to the presence of mosquito-borne illnesses.

Mary Jane Bailey. News Leader photo
Mary Jane Bailey. News Leader photo

Thompson added that staff research into other county ordinances regarding backyard chickens found that some local governments have agreements with feed stores “to turn unwanted chickens over to them.” Still, she said, “Mosquito Control is our first thought … but we will be exploring other possibilities.”

Along with Miller, three members of one family and three other individuals urged the commissioners to allow chicken keeping. Jeff Bailey and his daughters, Mary Jane and Vivian, talked of how they kept chickens in Santa Barbara, Calif., which was their home before they recently moved to Sarasota.

“We have not bought a house yet because we’re not 100-percent sure yet about the chicken thing,” Mary Jane told the board. “Chickens are fun and awesome and they don’t make any noise at night,” she pointed out.

In addition to laying “eggs that are so delicious,” Vivian said, “[chickens] make great companions.” Vivian also talked of “the Chicken Channel,” what she calls observing “all the silly and funny things they do in the yard.”

“I think this is a progressive ordinance, and I think it promotes unity in neighborhoods,” Malena Calderon told the board, adding, “An egg is a symbol of a beginning.”

Board questions and consternation

During his introduction of the discussion on July 12, Tom Polk, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, conceded, “This isn’t following the script that we had put forward” in a May 9 report to the board about the latest staff work on a draft ordinance.

Robinson replied, “We had said, ‘Use the City of Sarasota [backyard chicken keeping] ordinance as a model.” Why then, she asked, have the public workshops not been held?

Polk told her staff felt it would be better to have a draft in hand before holding the public discussions. Further, given the fact that the July 12 and 13 board meetings would be the last before the board’s traditional summer recess, Polk said, staff felt it was better to go ahead and request the advertisement of the public hearings and then hold the workshops during the commission’s break.

“You don’t just skip to the end without getting public input first,” she replied. She was dismayed, she added, that this type of situation had occurred on more than one occasion during the past two months.

Tom Polk. File photo
Tom Polk. File photo

“It takes three months to schedule workshops?” she asked Polk. “I’m flabbergasted.”

Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo told Polk he understood what Polk had said about the timing of the matter. “How much [different], potentially, is an alternative ordinance going to look?” Caragiulo added that he would not anticipate many changes following the public workshops.

Polk explained that staff did use the City of Sarasota ordinance as a guideline, incorporating the regulations into the county’s appropriate zoning districts, and staff had worked with CLUCK, the Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County to make additional modifications to the draft county ordinance.

“We’re not doing an inclusive ordinance,” Robinson argued, referring again to the sequence of events, with public opportunity for comment following the board’s authorization to advertise the draft. “It doesn’t look good.”

“That said, this is where we are right now,” Chair Al Maio told his colleagues.

Commissioner Charles Hines then made a motion to authorize the advertisement of the public hearings. Caragiulo seconded the motion.

“This makes us look even worse, because we’re not even getting a [staff] presentation on [the proposed ordinance],” Robinson protested.

Hines pointed out that the commissioners were familiar with the city’s ordinance. After another exchange with Polk — including assurance from Polk that the staff presentation would take only about five minutes — Hines said he would agree to withdraw his motion “so that the [members of the] public then … potentially interested in this who [have] not read this, not thought about it, not heard about it, will have this information prior to the public meetings.”

During her presentation, Thompson noted that the county ordinance mirrors the City of Sarasota law in terms of the number of chickens

Donna Thompson. File photo
Donna Thompson. File photo

that will be allowed per family and the size of the coops. Complaints will be handled by the county’s Code Enforcement Department, she added.

When Robinson asked whether staff looked into requiring vaccinations of chickens — she has heard arguments on both sides of that issue, she said — staff members indicated they had not. She asked them to do so and to email her with their answer. Maio then asked that all the commissioners receive that information.

Following Thompson’s remarks, Hines again made the motion to authorize the public hearings, and Caragiulo seconded it.

“I know it’s been a long day,” Hines said, “[but] that was worth taking that extra time.”

(The July 12 and July 13 board meetings were the final ones before the board takes its approximately month-long summer recess. County Administrator Tom Harmer had warned that the agendas would be full.)

The motion then passed on a 5-0 vote.