Community workshops to be held on backyard chicken keeping in the county prior to a public hearing later this year

County Commission votes unanimously to allow staff to proceed with crafting an ordinance based on the City of Sarasota model

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

Based on staff’s estimate, the Sarasota County Commission likely will hold a public hearing in late September or early October on allowing people in the unincorporated parts of the county to keep backyard chickens.

Commissioner Carolyn Mason formally made a motion on May 10 calling for public outreach and community workshops on the proposal before the board considers advertising a draft ordinance for the hearing. It passed 4-0, with Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo absent from the session at that point.

At the request of Commissioner Christine Robinson, staff also will work with representatives of Citizens Lobbying for Urban Chicken Keeping (CLUCK) on whether it can handle complaints — if an ordinance ultimately is approved — as it does for the City of Sarasota in regard to its backyard chicken-keeping program. Additionally, staff’s preparation of the draft ordinance will encompass research into whether veterinarians should be required to visit homeowners with chickens to ensure the birds remain in good health, in conjunction with potential licensing of chicken keeping. That request came from Robinson, too, who said she had heard mixed views on such a requirement.

Mason made it clear during the May 10 discussion that she wants the board to consider the ordinance before she retires in November — a necessity because of County Commission term limits.

“I think the staff did a great job with this report on backyard chickens, and I’d like the board to support me in moving it forward,” she said.

The report she referenced — which staff issued on May 9 — proposed the County Commission model a backyard chicken-keeping program on the one adopted by the Sarasota City Commission on Feb. 7, 2011. The city ordinance calls for no more than four chickens, and no roosters; no slaughtering of the chickens; no sale of eggs or other chicken products; housing of the birds in a movable hen house or coop that must be kept in a covered or a fenced-in enclosure at all times; all the chickens to be kept securely within the hen house or coop during non-daylight hours; and that the coop be no closer than 10 feet to any property line and at least 25 feet from any adjacent residence.

The May 9 report to the board included this map of zoning districts where chicken keeping might be allowed. Image courtesy Sarasota County
The May 9 report to the board included this map of zoning districts where chicken keeping might be allowed. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The city ordinance also makes it necessary for the enclosures to be constructed and maintained “so as to prevent rodents and other pests from being harbored underneath, within, or within the walls of the enclosure, and [they] must be impermeable to rodents, wild birds, and predators, including dogs and cats …”

Furthermore, the city law requires that the enclosures “be kept in neat condition, including provision of clean, dry bedding materials and regular removal of waste materials; that odors not be detectable at the property boundaries; and feed and other items associated with the keeping of the chickens shall be kept in secure containers to prevent rodents and pests from gaining access [to them].”

In seconding Mason’s motion, Commissioner Charles Hines asked that staff of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office continue to be involved in the process. The board report includes concerns expressed by staff of that office, especially the potential for extra funding and responsibilities for its Animal Services division, because the office expects an increase in the number of chickens being turned over to Animal Services as chickens age beyond the point they can lay eggs.

Commission Chair Al Maio. File photo
Commission Chair Al Maio. File photo

Hines also asked whether it might be prudent to implement the program on a trial basis for a year or two — as the City of Sarasota did — prior to making the ordinance permanent. That would allow the commissioners and staff time to make any adjustments to the law, in the event problems arose during the temporary implementation of it.

Additionally, Chair Al Maio asked that the draft ordinance include a provision that would enable a homeowners association with deed restrictions to take precedence over the county’s ordinance.

Earlier discussion

Mason last brought up the issue in early March, after staff completed a report in February regarding considerations related to the creation of a backyard chicken-keeping program. Questions that arose during the March 8 discussion ultimately led the board members to vote 4-1 — with Robinson in the minority — to ask staff to come back with another report within 60 days, incorporating material gleaned from further research.

At the outset of the May 10 discussion, Mason called for proceeding with advertising a public hearing on the issue. However, Robinson pointed out that the latest staff report called for community meetings and neighborhood workshops first. The document says staff would schedule workshops in both North and South county and facilitate discussions with groups such as the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA) to gather public comments.

“I’m not disagreeing with you on that,” Mason told Robinson, referring to those sessions. Her primary concern, Mason said, is “I don’t want this to languish past the time [Robinson] and I are gone from this commission.”

Robinson also will leave the board in November because of term limits.

These are among the CDC recommendations the Department of Health in Sarasota County provided to staff. Image courtesy Sarasota County
These are among the CDC recommendations the Department of Health in Sarasota County provided to staff. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Hines agreed with Robinson, but he asked County Administrator Tom Harmer about the potential for holding those workshops and still scheduling the public hearing before late fall. Hines added that backyard chicken keeping was the focus of community attention even before he was elected to the County Commission in 2012.

Harmer replied that he would check with the county’s Planning and Development Services Department staff about the timing.

“The outreach is critically important,” Maio concurred. “But I think a lot of the ‘heavy lifting’ has been done” by the City of Sarasota.

Mason then proposed withdrawing her motion. After reviewing the board report again, Robinson said she felt she would be fine with proceeding as staff had recommended.

Robinson did broached one more concern, however: Jono Miller, the leader of CLUCK “is single-handedly alleviating issues with chickens” in the city. Yet, he had told her he would not be able to do that countywide, she added. Therefore, the commissioners should consider how any county complaints will be handled.

Maio responded that he had talked with Miller numerous times and exchanged many emails with him. Miller “needs to get out there and help us as much as he can,” Maio added. While looking at Miller in the audience in the Commission Chambers in Venice, Maio told his colleagues, “He’s nodding his head, ‘Yes,’” indicating he would assist with handling complaints in the county.

Jono Miller. File photo
Jono Miller. File photo

During public comments at the beginning of the May 10 meeting, Miller was one of three speakers who encouraged the board to move ahead with allowing backyard chicken keeping. He pointed out that after the City of Sarasota concluded its three-year trial period, “not a single citizen showed up at [the public] hearing to testify against making [the law] permanent.” Additionally, he told the County Commission, more than 1,300 residents of the unincorporated part of the county have signed petitions asking that the county implement its own program.

Robinson told her colleagues she just wanted to cover as many potential concerns as possible in a draft ordinance before advertising it for the public hearing, so the board would not have to craft numerous changes the day of the hearing.

After Mason withdrew her motion, Robinson also asked that staff look into any health aspects related to backyard chicken keeping.

The board report said staff had consulted with Charles Henry, the county’s health official and director of the Health and Human Services Department. He told staff, the report noted, that “the Health Department has not seen any increase in diseases in Sarasota that may be associated with the keeping of chickens.” Moreover, in reviewing data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Henry added, he had found that agency does not offer a recommendation “for or against the keeping of backyard chickens.”

He did provide staff CDC information about steps people should take to stay healthy if they keep chickens, the report noted.

After Harmer reported that Planning and Development Services staff members “felt like they could go do the outreach and have the public hearing” in September or early October at the latest, Mason formally made a motion to proceed with the staff recommendations — and Robinson’s suggestions. Hines seconded it, and it passed 4-0.