Chicken coops would not be allowed in side yards, County Commission agrees on first reading of proposed ordinance

Final, required public hearing on backyard chicken ordinance will be held on Oct. 10 in Venice

Photo by David Monniaux via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by David Monniaux via Wikimedia Commons

With the emphasis having been placed on backyard chicken keeping over the past four years, Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson won unanimous support from her colleagues this week to remove a provision from a proposed county ordinance that would have allowed coops in side yards.

The vote came during the first of two required public hearings on the issue, which was held Sept. 20 in Sarasota.

However, Robinson did not garner support for her suggestion that the draft regulations require the coops to be moved around a homeowner’s property on a regular basis.

Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson explained that while the proposed ordinance necessitates that a coop be movable, “we haven’t specified that you must move it so many feet daily.”

Jono Miller, a founder of CLUCK — Citizens Lobbying for Urban Chicken Keeping — and one other speaker during the public hearing explained that it is better for the health of the chickens and the owner’s yard to move a coop periodically. “Instead of having a fixed run where they scratch it all up and their waste accumulates,” Miller said of chickens, “they get a new location to explore and [new] bugs [to eat].”

Moreover, he said, the ability to move a coop could “help defuse any conflict [between neighbors].”

However, Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out that he personally had not heard any complaints about that issue since the City of Sarasota approved its ordinance for backyard chicken keeping in February 2011. Additionally, Hines noted, “I don’t know that I want someone in [the county’s] Code Enforcement [Division] or the neighborhood going out and trying to track ‘did you move [the coop] this month? Did you move it last month?’”

He would prefer having people point out a problem before including a measure in the ordinance to address it, Hines told his colleagues.

Commissioner Carolyn Mason — who has shepherded the backyard chicken keeping initiative through the county regulatory process — told her colleagues she understood Robinson’s concern, but she had visited a home in Sarasota where chickens are kept, and she believed the coop was not movable.

A movable coop is shown on the website
A movable coop is shown on the website

In response to a question from Robinson, Assistant County Attorney David Pearce explained that with any intermittent violation, “you are talking about enhanced enforcement to be able to track and find this type of [problem].”

Chair Al Maio concurred with Hines. “I always like to see as broad a consensus amongst this commission as possible,” Maio said. But in this case, he added that he preferred to address the matter in a couple of years if complaints necessitated it.

Thompson also had explained that the proposed ordinance has a sunset date of Jan. 1, 2019. Before then, the board can choose to make the ordinance permanent or modify it.

The second public hearing on the law will be conducted at 5:01 p.m. on Monday, Oct 10, at the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice.

Reaching this point

Thompson told the board during her Sept. 20 presentation that the proposed ordinance allows for more zoning districts within which chickens could be kept. Already, she pointed out, chickens are allowed in areas zoned Open Use Agriculture, Open Use Mining, Open Use Rural, Open Use Estates and Residential Estates-1 (converted from Open Use Estates-2). The added designations are Residential Single Family, Residential Estates-2, Residential Estates-3 and Residential Commercial. No one could keep more than four chickens in these areas, she noted.

The proposed ordinance prohibits the ownership of roosters, the slaughtering of the birds, or the selling of chickens, eggs or related products on-site.

The chickens would have to be kept in a movable covered enclosure or a fenced-in area at all times, she explained. The space per chicken would have to be a minimum of 4 square feet. The enclosures would have to be “kept in neat condition, including provision of clean, dry bedding materials and regular removal of waste materials,” the draft ordinance says.

Furthermore, the enclosures could not be in the front yard of a home, and they could not be closer than 10 feet to any property line of any area zoned for residential use or within 25 feet of any adjacent dwelling.

Homeowner association standards that prohibit chicken keeping would supersede provisions of the county ordinance, Thompson said.

Donna Thompson. File photo
Donna Thompson. File photo

Any unwanted chickens could be taken to the county’s Health and Human Services Mosquito Control Division for possible utilization in the Sentinel Chicken Program, she pointed out. (That program works to detect the transmission of diseases such as West Nile virus, in the county.) If no room was available for extra chickens, she said, staff members of that division has relationships with farms that they believe would take the birds.

When Robinson first asked about the fact that coops could be positioned in side yards, Thompson pointed out that that would be possible, but the structure would have to meet the setback and separation requirements she had outlined. She stressed that no coop could be closer than 25 feet to an adjacent residential structure, and it would have to meet the 10-foot setback requirement for side yards as well as front yards.

Public comments

Miller was among seven people who addressed the County Commission during the public hearing. All of them voiced support for the ordinance.

Miller pointed out, “It was 672 days ago, on Nov. 18, 2014,” when four of the current commissioners asked about how much public support existed for backyard chicken keeping. “We’ve accumulated 1,889 petitions online,” he told them on Sept. 20, and 80 percent of the signatures represent about 1,500 county residents. Additionally, he said, the board had received 29 pages of comments favoring the ordinance; 22 emails were included in their backup agenda material; and more emails came in over the previous weekend, as Thompson had noted.

Jono Miller. File photo
Jono Miller. File photo

Before it held two public sessions this summer on the proposed ordinance, Miller continued, county staff mailed out 1,054 notices.

Only one person at one workshop voiced worry about odor and accumulation of waste from backyard chickens, he added, and those issues are addressed in the law. The woman also had a question about whether the homeowners association governing her neighborhood prohibited the keeping of chickens, Miller continued, so he obtained her contact information from the Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller and offered her support. He had heard nothing further from her, Miller said.

As the board had requested, he added, CLUCK had worked with county staff to spread the word about the proposed ordinance and help handle any issues that had arisen in discussions. “I believe that we have a very workable solution that’s based on the experience in the City of Sarasota.”

Moreover, he pointed out, “we’ve demonstrated that there is significant interest in the community.”