Feathers fly as urban residents fight for right to raise hens, roosters
League of Oregon Cities reports increased interest in backyard poultry
YACHATS, Ore. (AP) -- Yves Nakahama never intended to become the frontline leader of the backyard chicken movement in Yachats. The idea was to come up with a compromise, a pilot program, a way to show the City Council that the consequences of easing restrictions on chickens in the city limits are minimal, if not nil.
But then the feed store called to let Nakahama know the Araucana chicks he ordered back when he thought he'd be able to talk the city into a trial period were ready to be taken home.
So he bought some feed, picked up three hens and a rooster, began raising the birds in his bathroom before transferring them to a backyard coop -- despite its location, within 100 feet of his neighbors, in violation of city code.
But those neighbors actually welcomed the birds, Nakahma insists. And he rewarded them by handing over the very first egg that hatched, courtesy of Candy, the only hen to lay so far.
But Dusty the rooster drew complaints, one from across Highway 101 and another from up the hill, on his side of the road. The city issued a citation, Nakahama went to court, and the latest kerfuffle in the nationwide quandary over how municipalities can best deal with the rise in backyard chicken farming was born.
Nakahama gave Dusty away, but said he's determined to keep Candy, Easy and Butter right where they are.
"I always felt, no matter what, I was going to keep my hens," Nakahama said. "I think it's just a matter of time before the city comes around."
One by one, many Oregon municipalities have had to deal with the chicken conundrum lately, thanks to an increase in demand for chickens in urban areas of as much as 20 percent a year since 2007, local growers say. The Gresham City Council legalized chicken-keeping in December, unlike Beaverton's government, which insists upon keeping the birds at bay. Springfield allows residents up to four hens; in Eugene, the limit is two.
"This has been a big issue across the state this year," said Chad Jacobs, general counsel for the League of Oregon Cities. "A lot of cities say a certain number of chickens, but no roosters. Some jurisdictions allow potbellied pigs."
Lane County has concocted what may be one of the most Byzantine chicken laws. In rural residential zones of two- to five-acre parcels, up to 85 chickens per acre are permitted. But within the urban growth boundaries of Junction City, Cottage Grove, Florence and Creswell zoned "suburban residential," only one chicken over the age of 6 months is allowed per 500 square feet of property -- and no roosters over 6 months. Chickens under 6 months are OK, but can't exceed three times the number of allowable chickens over the age of 6 months. In those areas deemed "rural residential," the rules are the same, except that roosters aren't mentioned by name.
"So I guess you can have roosters," said county planner Deanna Wright. "I don't really know."
Yachats first considered the matter a couple of years back, when a group including Nakahama who named themselves "Chicks for Hens" went to the City Council to ask for an easing of the ordinance banning chickens within 100 feet of neighboring residences.
To Nakahama's surprise, there was considerable opposition. Some worried about the noise hens might make -- not to mention roosters. Others were concerned about the possible smell of chicken coops. And folks such as city councilor Larry Nixon figured a burgeoning chicken population could only lead to a burgeoning bear problem.
"We have close proximity to timber everywhere around town, and a substantial bear population that finds eating in the town is awful easy," Nixon said. "I'm concerned that bears are attracted not necessarily to the chickens but to the grain they eat -- the corn, especially. Put into your search engine 'chickens' and 'black bears' and it just lights up."
Other councilors, including Mayor Ron Brean, weren't as nervous about the idea. Brean agreed that any bear problem would be with the chicken feed, not the chickens. And he maintains that an ordinance could instruct people about how to properly keep the food out of harm's way.
"I buy the arguments of sustainability and locally grown foods," Brean said.
As for the nuisance factor, "we're talking about a couple of hens that might get up and go clucking around the yard. They're not going to be right under your neighbor's window. I don't think anybody's going to notice it -- nor is it a terribly hateful sound. Most of the other issues we can cover by the way we put the project together."
The council agreed to the pilot project, assigning councilor Dave Rieseck to work with Nakahama on it.
That plan ran into a roadblock after some debate about what to do with Rieseck's Shamrock Lodgettes, which were torn down earlier this year because they'd fallen into disrepair and because Rieseck is planning to build townhouses in their place.
Nakahama had strongly objected to the townhouse project and felt like his bridges were, if not burned, at least a little singed.
Meanwhile, he heard that a business in town had been housing ducks, and nobody seemed to be complaining. Plus, Nakahama had already ordered the chickens. So when the feed store called, he decided to wing it.
"The city feels like I did this behind their back," Nakahama said. "I think it was the rooster that kind of messed things up for me."
In court, Nakahama pleaded guilty and was fined $250. The city's code enforcement officer waived the fine, but the mayor said Nakahama is still expected to comply with the ordinance.
"We're not against the guy," Brean said. "But we have a code, and it has to be enforced."
Nakahama could comply with the law by moving his chicken coop to the front of the house, where it would be more than 100 feet from the nearest neighbor. But then he wouldn't be able to check the nesting box from his bathroom window. He built it there so he wouldn't have to run outside every morning to see if any of his chickens had decided to lay an egg. And he's hopeful, he said, the city will relent and he won't have to move the coop.