Backyard chicken ordinance wins final County Commission approval

CLUCK founder cites seven-year process to reach this point

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

Sarasota County Commission Chair Al Maio referred to it this week as the culmination of an almost two-year-long process, but one of the founders of Citizens Lobbying for Urban Chicken Keeping (CLUCK) told The Sarasota News Leader the Oct. 10 board approval of a backyard chicken-keeping ordinance actually began in June 2009. That was when the nonprofit organization first broached the issue in the community.

On a 4-1 vote following the second, required public hearing on the proposed county regulation, the commission formally gave its approval for residents to keep just hens, and only in designated zoning districts. Commissioner Christine Robinson cast the lone “No” vote, as she had during the first public hearing, held on Sept. 20.

The new law goes into effect as soon as the ordinance has been filed with the Office of the Secretary of the State of Florida. That generally takes just a few days, zoning staff has told the News Leader in the past.

The law has a sunset date of Jan. 1, 2019; the board may decide to revise the regulations or make it permanent.

“I think we have a much better ordinance now that we took the time to go through this,” Commissioner Charles Hines said in seconding Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo’s motion to approve it. “Standards in communities change over time.”

Photo by Luis Miguel Bugalla Sanchez via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Luis Miguel Bugalla Sanchez via Wikimedia Commons

The ordinance is modeled on a pilot program the City of Sarasota approved in February 2011 and then made permanent three years later. Miller pointed out to the News Leader that he first approached the County Commission in 2012, but board members at that time wanted to wait until the city law had been in effect for a while, to see whether any problems arose.

As she had during that earlier public hearing, county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson this week provided an overview of the ordinance’s provisions:

  • It allows for the keeping of no more than four chickens in the Residential Single-Family, Residential Estate-2, Residential Estate-3 and Residential Commercial zoning districts. Chickens have been permitted on property zoned for agricultural uses.
  • It prohibits roosters.
  • It prohibits the slaughtering or selling of chickens, eggs or related products on sites.
  • It requires that the chickens be provided with a movable covered enclosure or a fenced enclosure at all times. It also calls for the chickens to be secured within an enclosure during non-daylight hours, and the space per bird in the enclosure must not be less than 4 square feet. The enclosures cannot be placed within a front yard or side yard. Further, they must not be closer than 10 feet to any property line for an area zoned residential or within 25 feet of any adjacent residential dwelling.
  • It contains standards regarding odor and the prevention of rodents or other pests from being harbored around the enclosure.
  • It contains a provision ensuring the new standards do not affect any homeowner association declarations or restrictions.
  • It allows for any unwanted chickens to be taken to the county’s Health and Human Services Mosquito Control Division for utilization in the Sentinel Chicken Program. That program uses the chickens to test for the presence of mosquito-borne viruses, such as West Nile.

Robinson did note that she had received phone calls from people who were upset that they would not be able to keep chickens because their homes are on corner lots, essentially meaning they have no backyards.

Chair Al Maio had a quick fix for that. The side opposite whatever is considered the front yard of a house on a corner is the back yard, he pointed out.

Jono Miller. News Leader photo
Jono Miller. News Leader photo

As they have in the city since the City Commission approved the backyard chicken ordinance, members of CLUCK will assist county Code Enforcement staff with handling complaints that may be lodged. Miller provided staff with a county map showing the names and contact information for the volunteers.

As he explained to the News Leader in an Oct. 12 telephone interview, he has been going to homes in the city whenever staff receives a complaint about backyard chickens. Ninety percent of the time, he said, the crux of the issue is a rooster. When he explains to homeowners that the ordinance prohibits roosters, “virtually everybody” gets rid of them. In most cases, he added, people ended up with a rooster when they bought a chick that was identified as a female.

“This is a courtesy call, basically,” Miller added of such a visit. If it appears the situation could become threatening, he said, city Code Enforcement staff handles the matter.

However, given the breadth of the county, Miller continued, he could not commit himself to traveling from Sarasota to Englewood, for example, to handle a complaint. That was why CLUCK sought volunteers to assist. Eight people initially offered to help, he said, but the list has grown to about 11. Generally, they are spread throughout the county, though no one lives close to Palmer Ranch or Lakewood Ranch, he added. Yet, he would expect those communities to have homeowner association rules prohibiting chicken keeping anyway, he pointed out.

Board and public comments

Miller was one of seven people to address the County Commission during the Oct. 10 public hearing. “I kept chickens illegally in the county a number of years ago,” he confessed, adding that the statute of limitations had expired.

The genesis of CLUCK, he explained, was the fact that one of his neighbors — a New College student who also kept chickens — was afraid that a Code Enforcement officer would show up at any time and take away her birds.

Jennifer Ziegler. News Leader photo
Jennifer Ziegler. News Leader photo

Since then, he continued, he and other members of CLUCK had gained more than 1,800 signatures on an online petition seeking county approval of a backyard chicken ordinance.

He told the News Leader that about 1,500 of the signees were county residents. The fact that people had to search the internet for the petition was evidence of the degree of interest, he pointed out.

Speaking to the commissioners, he asked that county staff provide him with documentation showing the number of complaints about chicken keeping over the past two years. He would ask for the total at the end of the next two years, he added, so he could compare the figures.

All the other speakers — including the neighbor Miller had mentioned — also urged the board to approve the ordinance.

Robinson did take time to explain her objections before the vote. First, she said, she did not understand why the ordinance calls for the use of movable coops, but it does not require the coops to be moved.

When she raised that question on Sept. 20, Hines voiced concern about the potential for impinging on residents’ rights, with Code Enforcement staff or a resident, for example, checking on such action.

Miller had explained during that session that moving the coops is better for a person’s yard — as chickens scratch — and for the birds, as a different location gives them access to new bugs to eat.

On Oct. 10, Robinson noted the potential for waste to accumulate if a coop is not moved regularly. “It makes a neighborhood miserable,” as she could attest, she added, from firsthand knowledge in areas she had visited outside the county.

Robinson also said she did not agree that chicken keeping should be allowed on the barrier islands, as provided for in the ordinance. Having lived in Miami for five years and having visited the Florida Keys often during that time, she continued, she had seen not just roosters but hens roaming streets.

Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo
Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo

“Probably the biggest reason [for opposing the new law],” she told her colleagues, is that she feels the county’s Code Enforcement staff already has not been efficient in its operations, as evidenced in staff reports the board requested in 2014 and 2015. “I don’t have a lot of faith right now that we are going to be able to do this well, with the problems we’ve seen for the last two years.”

Given that the county has begun requiring most residents to handle their own right of way mowing, and the retail pet sales prohibition will go into effect next year, Robinson said she felt the chicken-keeping ordinance will impose just one more burden on Code Enforcement staff, and those workers will not be up to the task.

The only other negative comment offered by a board member came from Hines, who referenced a public comment by Jennifer Ziegler. She had talked of being turned into Code Enforcement staff by a “neighborhood jerk,” Hines said, because she and her family did not meet setback requirements for keeping two hens.

Chickens were seen as farm animals in the past, Hines pointed out, which is why the Zoning Code did not allow them in neighborhoods. “I don’t think it’s a joking matter to call [somebody] a jerk, who called to enforce our zoning code that existed at the time.”

“We’ve tweaked [this law] to the point where I think it protects everybody,” he said, “but not everybody in the community agreed that we should do this ….”

Miller told the News Leader that Ziegler was the person who revived the backyard chicken proposal in March of this year; it had languished since he had raised it with the board in November 2014, “the first day” Maio and Caragiulo served as county commissioners.

“It’s good to have it done,” he said of the measure’s passage this week. Still, Miller noted, when citizens seek action on a matter that faces no significant opposition, “it shouldn’t take that long. … Basically, a handful of people have objected to this.”