Unfortunately, not all cities and towns will let you keep chickens. Here are some step-by-step tips for changing the law where you live.
1. Recruit others to help – Use the Internet to locate other like-minded people and organize a group. Visit the forum on www.BackyardChickens.com. If you post a message like “Help me change the law in Salem, Ore.,” the inclusion of your town’s name in the message’s title is crucial – it will encourage people in your town to read it. Organize a group, assign it a name and logo, and develop an online presence for it, using such tools as a Web site, blog or Yahoo group.
2. Know the current laws – The first step in changing your city’s code is to understand the existing law on the books. Find out if chickens are allowed under certain conditions that will need to be amended, or if a new ordinance will be needed. Don’t go by hearsay; get your information straight from the city, in writing.
Many city ordinances can be found online. Locate the city’s official Web site and explore the “Code Enforcement” or “Zoning” sections of the site. Once you find the ordinances, search for the words “livestock,” “poultry,” “fowl” and “chickens.”
You may need to search for sections such as “Animals” or “Sanitation.” Try to think of every possible way the law might be listed.
Be sure to research your city’s definition of “livestock.” In Salem, Ore., for example, the city’s livestock definition includes chickens, and, in another section of the city ordinances, it states that no livestock is allowed in the city. However, in the “Land Use” section, the list of approved “special uses” includes keeping a potbelly pig. We used this leverage for our fight. (Consider this – you can keep a 100-pound pig in the city but not a 3-pound bird that provides eggs!) Look for things such as that to argue your case. Then, contact your local code compliance officer to help in verifying your interpretation of the written code.
3. Check other nearby cities – E-mail the code compliance office, mayor’s office, city commissioners and other officials in nearby chicken-friendly towns. Ask how their policy works and if it has been a success. Then, draft an ordinance, or amendment to an existing ordinance, that is appropriate for your town. Prepare your ordinance to be similar to what others have done and what has proven to work. Keep it simple.
4. Assemble an informational packet – Base it on information you collect. You may modify our Research Packet (find it here), making it appropriate for your town. Include letters of support. State the facts. Cite your references. Include maps, charts, graphs, tables and photographs. A table of contents will make it easy for others to locate information.
5. Recruit support – Offer your information packet to neighborhood associations and give presentations. E-mail or otherwise distribute your packets to agencies that promote sustainability, gardening, feeding the hungry and other such causes and values, and solicit endorsements. Your packet will continue to grow, so update it as needed.
6. Alert the media –You will find additional support once the word gets out. Frustrated chicken owners who have had to conceal their unlawful keeping of poultry will want to get involved and show support. Contact the reporter on your local newspaper’s environmental beat – and offer a “living green” story.
Once the story hits city hall, the media will likely be contacting you. I was surprised to receive an e-mail message from The Wall Street Journal, and an Associated Press reporter contacted me, as well. The next media contact came from Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud” show. Not all media coverage is positive, but remember that any and all exposure is good for your cause.
7. Go to City Hall – You’ve completed the research, garnered support and issued a professional packet. It’s time to contact your city council and request the issue be placed on the agenda. Find out how your city council meetings function and when public comments are allowed. We distributed packets and had various speakers read speeches. Learn the protocol for submitting an item for discussion with your public officials.
8. Follow through – Expect for this to take months – in addition to several months of planning and preparation. Changing city ordinances is neither easy nor quick. Be persistent. People will stall, expecting you will give up. They need to know you are serious and determined.
9. Stay respectful and courteous at all times – You will get more accomplished if you keep your cool at all times. When dealing with elected officials, remember that they are trying to do their job and represent their constituents. Always remain polite, professional and factual, no matter what. Just remember: If all goes well, in the end it will be a win-win situation for all involved.
To learn more about changing urban chicken laws, read "The Fight for Raising Chickens in the City" at Grit.