Raising chickens in neighborhoods is proving to be an emotional and complicated issue in unincorporated Sarasota County.
Melanie Yoder, a member of Sarasota Citizens Lobbying For Urban Chicken Keeping, appeared before the Sarasota County Commission Tuesday to share her story about how neighbors complained about their chickens and how hard it was to explain to her son Chaz, who has autism.
But she couldn't begin to get her words out, tearing up, waving her hand with emotion, letting her sister Lynnann Rak to take over and explain.
"We got turned in by a very upset neighbor, and our chickens got taken away, and somebody got very sad because … He's very sad because he doesn't understand where his chickens are. He can never understand," Rak said as she stood beside Chaz, who isn't sure where his chicken he name Opal is now, so he carries Opal around by making a chicken face with his hand.
Several people from CLUCK voiced their support to have the County Commissioners revise the zoning ordinance to allow residential areas with some exceptions to allow backyard chickens. Folks can have chickens on agriculturally zoned land and in the City of Sarasota, but the neighborhoods are bit of a no-chicken land.
Now, it's up to CLUCK to meet with nearly every neighborhood and community association in the county to gain support and work out details before county staff will be committed to the project, said Commission Chairwoman Christine Robinson.
"I'm not saying no. I'm saying go out to the community associations, home owner associations ... to garner that support before it's taken on by us and the county and we spend time and energy and money on it.," Robinson said. "They would be in a good position to do it especially if they want to put that forward."
Staff recommended on April 10 that the commission have this discussion, but it took residents during a public comment time to prompt commissioner action five months later. (See the PDF report below the chicken photo.)
The chicken supporters rattled off benefits of having backyard chickens including having your own eggs, providing natural fertilizer for your lawn and garden, a natural insect repellent and snake eater, among others.
CLUCK plans to meet and would wait to view the commissioner discussion until its next meeting on Oct. 2 at the Florida Learning House, 4454 Beneva Road, according to Jono Miller of CLUCK.
Earlier this month, Miller shared CLUCK's vision of how neighbors and poultry can co-exist peacefully in the county, and essentially the group would like to see an ordinance modeled after the City of Sarasota where no roosters would be allowed, and no more than four chickens may be kept.
The actual areas of where chickens could be kept would be in a much smaller land than what's approved, Miller figures. First, he believes that apartments, duplexes and condominiums shouldn't be allowed to have chickens, just like the city ordinance states, but those associations plus deed-restricted communities would mostly likely have chickens banned anyway.
"We're looking at older neighborhoods, compatible sized lots and not deed restricted communities," Miller told Patch at the September CLUCK meeting.
Commissioners Robinson, Carolyn Mason and Joe Barbetta supported the consensus Tuesday for the neighborhood-association first approach while Commissioner Jon Thaxton, who grew up on a farm, supported CLUCK's desires while Commissioner Nora Patterson doesn't support allowing chickens in neighborhoods.
"The truth is, it does bother some folks, and I guess I feel that our code enforcement plate is really full," Patterson said. "Having to enforce whether they have roosters or not and whether they're in the coop rather than running lose and that sort of thing, I just don't think this is a great time to expand our challenges."
Miller also wrote to Patterson in an email saying code enforcement is already addressing backyard chickens:
". . . what has been motivating me (when I could be working on so many other important local issues) is that right now, in my opinion, Sarasota County's backyard chicken prohibition is consuming measurable enforcement effort (at some cost to the county) enforcing something that doesn't make sense, is unfair, unjustifiable, and is making families miserable. That shouldn't be."
Even the county itself has issues at times with keeping chickens they own in neighborhoods. Neighbors have complained about sentinel chickens that are used to detect mosquito-born viruses and the Health Department has had to relocate their flocks through the years.
Barbetta is cautious, guessing that the opposition who hasn't had a chance to speak yet could fill a room, so it's on CLUCK now to prove that this idea won't fly the coop.
"… Show us that they have a broad community support for this," he said.
If the Coalition of Neighborhood Associations is the route, it will prove to be tough if it was anything like the city's process. CLUCK already tangled with the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations during the Sarasota municipal process, getting rejected, yet still managed approval from city commissioners.
Thaxton acknowledges the need of neighborhoods throwing their support behind the chickens, but believes that it's time that the county allows backyard chickens.
"I think it will take a great deal of community outreach in terms of the neighborhood associations and things but it's been a long time coming," he said. "It's something I would initially support at least to the point of getting some public feedback."
An April county staff report already addressed a few concerns saying that if a code amendment would be in place, "it may be necessary to consider incorporating additional stipulations with regard to the placement of coops on residential properties, the number of such animals permitted per residential property, and regulations to safeguard against potential nuisances such as noise, odor, the hens/chickens roaming, and no raising of such animals for illegal purposes (i.e., cock fighting)."
Patterson would also prefer to see how the city's ordinance works out for at least two years before wanting the county to jump on board. The city approved its ordinance in January 2011.
Francis Turner is one such urban chicken owner in city limits, keeping four hens for a year and a half.
"They eat our table scraps; they're fun to be around. They have names," Turner said. "I named them after my two sisters — JoEllen and Marietta, which they are delighted with.
Oh yeah, one is also named for his wife Rosie, too.
"Our chickens have brought us lots of happiness, eggs, pest control and I support other residents of our county to have backyard chickens," Turner said.
Until chickens are approve in county neighborhoods, chicken owners try to remain secretive in fear of neighbors calling code enforcement, forcing them to get rid of chickens or pay a $250 per day fine or $500 per day for a repeat violation.
"We have to refer them as birds when we're out in public because we're afraid that people would tell on us," Jenny Brannon said. "I don't know how to explain to my 3 year old that we have to get rid of our Dr. Boost and Cinnamon—all our little chickies because we can't have them, and she really doesn't understand.
"And honestly, I don't understand either why we can't have them."
City of Sarasota Urban Chickens Key Facts
- Up to four hens per single family household
- Have to be kept secure, out of sight, out of smell, in the back or side yard
- No slaughtering
- No roosters
- Must not be within 25 feet of fence.
- Coop must house the hens
- Chicken owners cannot sue or take legal action if a neighboring cat or dog were to kill a hen.
- The ordinance will be reviewed in three years for a progress and status report.
If You Go
Sarasota CLUCK Meeting
6:30 p.m. Oct. 2
Florida Learning House, 4454 Beneva Road
Staff reports used for Urban Chicken Facts.