I didn’t expect to be posting another piece on chickens so soon, but (1) there is a bill on urban chickens being considered by Metro Council, (2) its a hot topic, and (3) I attended a meeting in my neighborhood on the subject last Saturday.

Last year there was an attempt to get a bill passed in the Metro Nashville City Council to allow “back yard chickens” in Nashville, which failed.  Now a new effort is underway, with a new Metro Council.

Vision from the 1950s

The metro council members who are opponents of a change in the law don’t actually make a case, at least not in published news accounts.  They merely assume a case—chickens are farm animals and we live not only in a city, but in the part of that city zoned residential. Chickens are smelly and noisy, and attract wildlife. And my constituents don’t like chickens, except as food.  Case closed.

These assumptions are, of course, true and false, and would be equally true or false of dogs and small children, and especially of teenagers (except for the “food” part).

These defenders of the sanctity of “residential” neighborhoods view the city as something that segregates living, working, buying, and demographics into zones, and prevents the zones from intermingling except in rare circumstances at well defined edges.  Theirs is a vision of the city, developed in the 1950s and built around automobiles, that views the household as a unit of consumption and not as a unit of production, and residential living as a constrained concept that separates you geographically from other activities, whether they be restaurants, playgrounds, grocery stores, or farms.

The problem with these other non-residence activities is often not the activity itself, but the annoying car that is required to reach the activity and then must be parked somewhere.  The zoning laws have the by-product of forcing the resident to use a car to get to other places he or she wants to visit, since none of those destinations are allowed to be near enough to one’s residence to walk.

This “50s” suburbanized car-dependent version of the city is what is enshrined in metro’s codes (and believe me, codes are important).  So it’s not really chickens that are a problem; the problem is the definition of a city and what urban life is and should be. The alternative vision I will propose in more detail on another post is not a return to 19th century America (though that vision has its attractions), but a reflection of new realities and opportunities driven by technology and how people in cities want to live.

Are chickens a nuisance?

I’ll come back to the vision in a minute, but first want explore a couple of details about the current law and then the proposed law.  To find out what the law says, I went the website where Metro’s laws are published and looked under “animals.” The key provision there was in section 8.12.020. It says rather simply that “No person shall keep chickens within the metropolitan government area in such a manner that a nuisance is created.”

Looking up “nuisance” on the web (I couldn’t find it defined in the code) a nuisance is the unreasonable (or unlawful) use of your own property in a way that interferes with someone else (a neighbor) being able to enjoy or use his or her own property.  So, issues of smell and noise are important, and under this part of the existing code are actionable.

In a concession to neighborliness, the “nuisance” provision remains unchanged in the proposed new law. If your neighbor’s chickens are a nuisance, under the proposed new law you can still file a complaint, as you can today.

5 acres and a chicken

Unfortunately, this fully reasonable requirement (don’t be a nuisance) is not the important part of the existing law. The important part is in the zoning codes. It is there we find the real restriction—that farm animals cannot be cooped up at all in the urban services district and further, in the general services area, such animals cannot be housed on plots of less than 5 acres.

An issue that has arisen here is that the definition of “farm animals” in the code is not clear.  Many consider chickens under the heading “pets” rather than “farm animals,” and statements about how back-yard chickens are treated by children (petted) suggests pets may be the better term.  However, the current law must be considered “vague” on this point, and sometimes vague is good.

The proposed bill would change all of this, allowing residents in the urban services with less than 5 acres to raise chickens in their back yards.  It adds a set of requirements on chicken owners, though.  In brief the new rules:

  • Prohibit roosters
  • Limit the number of hens to 6
  • Require that the hen’s housing and outside pen must secure the chickens from predators
  • Require minimum pen and housing size
  • Require a permit tied to fee of at least $25 annually (the fine for illegal chickens under current law is $50)
  • Have rules around feed and disposal of waste (it can be composted)

I should note that the square footage requirements of the proposed law (2 sq. feet per bird of indoor space and 6 sq. feet of outdoor space) are well in excess of what the standard “factory farm” has for chickens (they have no required outdoor space and as many as 5 birds are squeezed into slightly more than a square foot of cage (14 inches on a side)). However, the proposed rules are below the European standard for free-range designation (10 square feet of outdoor space per chicken).  Nevertheless,  this proposed new law takes a big step away from the  extreme lifetime confinement in the factory farm.

The benefits of backyard chickens, as stated by advocates, are outlined in Gloria Ballard’s excellent blog, http://gloriaballard.wordpress.com/2011/11/20/cluck/ so I won’t repeat them here, except to say that food production in a residential neighborhood, whether hen eggs or asparagus, should be encouraged as an element of healthy and enjoyable living, within reasonable guidelines.

Consume and Produce

Backyard food production fits in with a broader vision of the city as a place where people’s residences can also be productive, and not just consumptive. Under this broader vision, your home can be

  • a location for work (almost 5% of Nashvillians work at home according to the 2010 American Community Survey),
  • a location for power generation (solar panels are going on roofs and in yards around town as part of TVA’s Power Generation program), and
  • a location for back-yard farming.

Where you live can be more than just an isolated refuge from city life; it can be an integrated part of the city, within reasonable limits.  The point is to avoid being a nuisance to your neighbor and to be neighborly; to respect your neighbors and their reasonable use of their own property.

Under current law, there are lots of people who have back yard chickens “under the radar,” and the number is growing all the time. (It’s a movement.) The proposed new law puts new requirements on these hen owners, and most of the requirements, if not all, seem quite reasonable.

What the proposed law doesn’t do is address the “vision thing,” the outdated idea, still operative, of what residential life in the city should be. It does, however, take a peck or two at a new vision.  Fortunately, the Nashville Civic Design Center is taking on the broader project, and even within the metro code, there is now some “mixed use” options.

I don’t plan to have back-yard chickens.  I would much rather my neighbors have them, and share their eggs with me occasionally. However, I would consider getting a permit so that I could borrow my neighbor’s chickens and let them peck my back yard free of ticks and other troublesome bugs from time-to-time.

In addition to Gloria’s blog, interested readers can check out UCAN (Urban Chicken Advocates of Nashville) on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/UCANUrbanChickenAdvocatesofNashville