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Commission Approves Backyard Chickens in Athens

Sorry, Commissioner Rooster. You’re still illegal.

Peep this: The Athens-Clarke County Commission approved an ordinance allowing backyard chickens tonight by an 8–1 vote.

After about an hour’s worth of back-and-forth about the particulars, the commission approved a law allowing up to six hens (no roosters) in all zoning districts. 

Commissioner Kelly Girtz added a provision requiring that chicken coops be at least 20 feet from neighboring residential structures, and at least 10–50 feet from property lines, depending on the size of lots in owners’ neighborhoods. If the lot is too small the meet the setbacks, enclosures may be in the center of the backyard. A clause allowing chickens to be kept in side yards was removed. County officials are required to provide information to citizens on how to raise chickens and report back in a year on any issues the ordinance has caused.

“I hope that works to allay any fears or concerns neighbors have about keeping birds,” chicken advocate Michael Songster told the commission.

Mayor Nancy Denson continued to insist that chickens could damage property values and pit neighbor against neighbor.

“Less than 100 people” want the law changed, Denson said. “I’m probably in the minority in this room,” she said. “I don’t believe I’m the minority in this community among our citizens.”

Over three months of discussion (and extensive media coverage), only two people spoke out publicly against backyard chickens, while more than a dozen spoken in favor.

Commissioners Harry Sims and Sharyn Dickerson joined Denson in criticizing the last-minute changes, in spite of the fact that the commission frequently tweaks ordinances before approving them. They proposed tabling the ordinance, but ACC Attorney Bill Berryman told them that wasn’t an option, so they proposed sending it back to the Planning Commission, which would send it forward to the Mayor and Commission again for a July vote. However, their motion failed by a 7–2 vote.

In the end, Dickerson voted for Girtz’s proposal. Commissioner Jerry NeSmith was absent, but almost certainly would have voted in favor of it as well.

Denson indicated that she would not veto the ordinance, and even if she did, supporters appear to have the votes to override it. “You guys can go buy your chickens now,” she said after it passed.

“I’m naming mine after you,” Commissioner Melissa Link said.

“I’m very flattered,” Denson replied. “I was named after a horse, so it’s nothing new. My mother had a horse named Nancy.”