Mayor Nancy Denson Should Loosen Up on Backyard Chickens

You’ve seen the bumper stickers. The Athens pro-chicken campaign has actively sought and fought for the legalization of chickens since its founders, Mary and Michael Songster, received a citation in 2008 for their small flock of backyard birds. After seven years of essentially ignoring this issue, Athens-Clarke County officials were finally forced to publicly open the chicken debate because of a local court case that challenged the constitutionality of Athens-Clarke County’s definition of agriculture.

The ACC Planning Department and the manager’s office are currently putting together a chicken ordinance to be approved or denied by the Mayor and Commission. Unfortunately, commissioners’ ability to offer formal input has been limited by this task not being referred to a committee. Instead, the way it is being developed leaves much of the decision-making process to Mayor Nancy Denson, who is openly skeptical of permitting chickens (some might say vehemently anti-chicken).

The mayor favors an intensely regulated ordinance. She recently responded to a pro-chicken citizen’s email and said she is concerned about legalizing chickens because she believes that “government regulations should not grant rights to one group of citizens by depriving those of another.” This logic makes very little sense. Laws, by nature, often deny one group of citizens a lifestyle in which they would like to partake. So if you don’t want to deprive one group of a way of life, why bother making any laws at all? And, ironically, if chickens continue to be prohibited—or are allowed with extreme restriction—then a large group of citizens remain deprived of the option to include chickens in their lifestyle.   

Rumor has it that the chicken ordinance may require written consent from all surrounding neighbors to legally keep chickens. Why is it that chickens would require such stringent rules? We allow people to keep dogs, cats, lizards, gerbils and other animals as pets without requiring neighbors’ consent. (And none of these animals provide us with delicious eggs!)

We don’t pre-emptively send code enforcement officers into private homes to inspect our animals’ cleanliness and to ensure they have adequate food, water and shelter. We don’t put a limit on the number of children you can have playing in your yard. People can use noisy leaf blowers and lawn mowers whenever they want.

Usually, we don’t need to call law enforcement on our neighbors—we work it out on our own. When extra assistance is needed in quelling neighborly discontent, we can turn to local and state nuisance and animal cruelty laws that already exist to protect residents from problematic situations with neighbors, and to ensure that domestic animals are well cared for by their owners.

There are also more specific regulations that protect residents from certain problems as they arise, like loud parties or barking dogs. These regulations do not, however, restrict someone’s ability to own a dog or have a party.

While some chicken-specific regulation might be necessary, an overly invasive and restrictive ordinance, however, is not, and and likely would prevent many people from being able to participate in keeping chickens. A good ordinance would include as little regulation as possible, and its requirements would be fair and not exclude renters or homeowners with smaller-size properties, or those with chicken skeptics as neighbors. A good ordinance would allow a maximum of at least six birds and permit some degree of free ranging on the chicken-keeper’s property.

An unfair ordinance would limit chicken-keeping to only those who can afford it: homeowners with large lots and enough extra income to spend on elaborate chicken coops. One of the many benefits of keeping chickens is access to fresh, nutritious eggs.

The majority of ACC commissioners claim to be pro-chicken (and believe they have the seven necessary votes to override a potential veto). The extent of their pro-chicken-ism will soon be tested by the type of ordinance they choose to vote into practice. I’m holding out hope for a fair ordinance to prevail, but I’m not counting my chickens before they hatch.