Some City Folk Are Mad as Wet Hens When Chickens Come Home to Roost
Date: July 15, 2009
Byline: Nick Timiraos
In Salem, Ore., the Claws Have Come Out Over Backyard Coops; 'Get a Farm'
SALEM, Ore. — For three hours at a City Council meeting, residents clucked over the latest debate ruffling feathers here: Should homeowners be allowed to keep chickens in their backyards?
The chicken fight began last summer, when a neighbor snitched on Barbara Palermo to city authorities for keeping four pet hens in a backyard coop. Chickens and other livestock aren't allowed in Salem backyards where land isn't zoned for agricultural use. A city compliance officer knocked on Ms. Palermo's door to tell her she had to get rid of her pet birds.
But she has decided not to give up without a fight. Ms. Palermo put her chickens in "foster care" with a friend outside town as she rallies residents and presses city councilors to pass an ordinance legalizing backyard coops. She's asking the city to allow homeowners to have three hens — no roosters, which are much noisier — that would have to be kept in enclosed coops at all times.
Ms. Palermo is part of a debate that's playing out in several cities across the country. The 51-year-old veterinarian's assistant says she's stunned by the opposition. It's hypocritical that Salem residents can keep potbellied pigs weighing under 100 pounds, she says. "They generate a lot of poo and don't give you eggs...so it's ridiculous when you ask for a hen and people panic."
Enthusiasts say chickens make great pets, especially for young children, and that their eggs taste much better than the store-bought kind. Ms. Palermo also uses chicken waste as fertilizer for her vegetable garden and composter and feeds grass clippings, carrot tops, and other green waste to her birds. "In 24 hours, it will be an egg and fertilizer," she says.
Advocates, who also tout the economic benefits of having free eggs, say the recession is driving an interest in backyard gardens that increasingly include chicken coops.
But critics of the backyard coops say chickens attract raccoons, coyotes, and other pests and that they create unsanitary conditions. And the foes say the cited economic benefits are nonsense. Just building a coop can cost hundreds of dollars and raising hens is time-consuming.
"It's silliness," says Terri Frohnmayer, a commercial real-estate broker who is co-chairwoman of one of Salem's 19 neighborhood associations and lives outside town next to a farm that has chickens. "Eggs aren't even that expensive anyway. What's next? Goats? Llamas?" Her advice to hen-loving neighbors: "Get a farm."
There are no official statistics on how many city folk keep chickens, and it isn't clear whether urban coops are on the rise. Randall Burkey Co., a Boerne, Texas, hatchery, credits a doubling of small orders for chickens and supplies in urban and suburban areas for boosting profit at a time when traditional sales to commercial farmers have been flat or down. "We're experiencing some pretty nice growth, which, considering the economy, has been quite a blessing," says Clark Burkey, vice president for marketing.
One online network, BackyardChickens.com, has 35,000 members, up from about 10,000 a year ago. Members there solicit tips on how to keep illegal coops hidden from nosy neighbors and on how to persuade local politicians to allow backyard chickens.
During the two world wars, many cities encouraged residents to grow their own food and to keep chickens. But restrictions have cropped up in the past 50 years as urbanization reached deeper into the countryside. Salem allowed residents to keep livestock, including chickens, until the 1970s, when it decided "to be a city and not a rural community," says Chuck Bennett, a City Council member who opposes allowing backyard chickens.
Madison, Wis., in 2004 was one of the first cities to reverse a chicken ban, and other cities have followed suit, including Portland, Maine, and Vancouver, British Columbia.
In other cities, chickens have become a nuisance as they roam city streets. In 2003, Miami formed a "Chicken Busters" squad with a firefighter and code enforcement bureaucrat armed with big nets and small cages to patrol neighborhoods once a month. The team captured more than 6,600 chickens, and raised more than $11,000 selling them to local farms.
In Salem, city compliance officers inspect homes only when there are complaints, and owners usually are told to get rid of the birds or face fines. The city got around 30 complaints last year and has received about one a week since the debate heated up this year.
Nancy Baker-Krofft unsuccessfully lobbied the city in 2006 to change the law and brought her birds out of hiding earlier this year when it appeared that Salem might allow them. When city officials come to inspect, she says, she'll hide the birds in her son's room or check them into a neighbor's contraband coop, which she calls the "chicken hotel."
Last month, a chicken got loose when an officer inspected Ms. Baker-Krofft's home, resulting in her third citation. "I cannot afford another $250 ticket," says the 54-year-old substitute teacher. She has already racked up $350 in fines for repeated chicken-related citations, which she is challenging in city court.
Her behavior has alienated her from some neighbors, and her neighborhood association opposes keeping chickens. "It's like she has some underground railroad for chickens," says Alan Scott, the head of the association.
Mr. Scott and others worry that neighbors who don't take care of their coops will lower property values. The biggest concern, however, is that chickens will just lead to more conflicts between chicken owners and neighbors who own more traditional pets, like dogs. "You can just see the conflict associated with the addition of another animal into this kind of [close] environment," says Mr. Bennett, the council member.
Ms. Frohnmayer, who lives outside Salem, often finds her own springer spaniel sizing up chickens on her neighbor's farm. It's only natural, she says, for her dog to want to eat her neighbor's birds. "Are they going to put my dog down when it eats one of their chickens?" she says.
That issue has already come up. Salem resident Jason Caldwell replaced his neighbor's chicken after his Labrador retriever mauled a bird that had wandered onto his property. "I was just being a good neighbor," he says.
But when the dog ate the replacement, Mr. Caldwell bought yet another chicken for his neighbors and offered the following warning: "If there are any more chickens that are in my yard, I'm going to let the dog do whatever he wants."
He says he offered to build a better coop for his neighbor and spent $100 to replace the birds, which were a specialty breed. "That's a terrible way of having to have a conversation with your neighbor, but at some point I've got to put my foot down," he says.
Salem's City Council remains divided over the issue. Salem Mayor Janet Taylor is guardedly supportive of the measure and ready to vote after months of debate. "I know chickens are important, but we need to move on," she says.