by Barbara Palermo — Photographed by Junial Enterprises
When we investigated the legality of keeping chickens, they were not specifically mentioned in the city code. Instead, a section of the city code listed “approved land uses,” including raising a 100-pound potbelly pig. Another section of the code prohibited “livestock” in the city. Later, we discovered the city’s definition of livestock included poultry, but we weren’t worried. It also included “all species of swine,” yet pigs were permitted. We thought that if you could keep a big pig, then it would surely be OK to keep a few small hens. Because Salem’s ordinance was so vague, confusing and contradictory, we gave ourselves permission and built our chicken coop.
In no time, half of our yard remained traditional lawn and flower beds, and the rest was converted into a productive ecosystem that sustained us, while saving us money and resources. My hens had just begun laying beautiful eggs when “it” happened in August 2008.
I was shocked to find a code compliance officer at my door. While a neighbor was working on his roof, he had seen our chickens. His complaint wasn’t about noise or smell; it was just that he saw our flock. I refused to give up my birds without a fight.
Certainly, we could reason with people making the rules. After all, government works for the people, and we were in line with projects our city was promoting – community gardens, sustainability, recycling and natural pest control.
I put my four hens in foster care, and I devoted the next six months to researching the subject of urban chicken keeping. We formed a group called Chickens In The Yard (C.I.T.Y.). We joyfully discovered that cities such as Seattle, Denver, New York, and – closer to home – Portland, Ore., already were allowing a limited number of egg-laying hens. More cities were joining the urban chicken movement every week.
We prepared a 60-page informational packet for our city council that addressed every possible concern we could think of and included written statements from officials in chicken-friendly cities explaining how hens had benefited their communities.
The next nine months of exhausting deliberations were not expected. Other people were surprised, as well, because the Salem chicken issue graced the cover of The Wall Street Journal. In spite of the national spotlight, a positive recommendation by city staff, outstanding community support and endorsements from 12 of the 19 neighborhood associations in Salem, the majority of our elected officials voted down the proposed ordinance in October 2009.
As word spread, more people contacted us for advice, seeking us out because of the media attention we received and the research packet for which we had become known. The inquiries compelled us to produce a documentary detailing our struggle to join the urban chicken movement, hoping it would provide a learning experience for others. The film’s main purpose is to educate, raise awareness and dispel chicken-keeping myths.
We lost the battle in Salem, but we are winning the war nationwide by motivating others to convince their public officials to provide what we have not (yet) accomplished. While we wait for next May’s election and hope for more pro-chicken council members, we turn our attention elsewhere. Most recently, Forest Grove and Gresham, two other Oregon cities, passed chicken ordinances using our research. It’s a great feeling to know we’ve helped families in Oregon, North Carolina, New Jersey, Minnesota and Kansas get chickens into their yards.
Today, a community known as the “chicken underground” lives and thrives. These otherwise law-abiding citizens raise hens because they’re folks who know the benefits of fresh, homegrown eggs outweigh the risks. Chickens make delightful pets with funny antics and personalities that many people enjoy. Citizens will continue to keep urban hens illegally and look forward to the day they are legal. What started as a humble effort to regain custody of my hens developed into something I never could have imagined. At first, I was known as “the Chicken Lady,” but later, after months of struggling for the right to raise my chickens and with no end in sight, my husband started to call me “the Che Guevara of the Chicken Liberation Front.” Eventually, my friend and fellow C.I.T.Y. member Nannette Duryea Martin brought that image to life by designing our new logo, “Che Chicken,” and the Chicken Revolution was hatched. Living a sustainable life should not require a revolution, but in cities where elected representatives are reluctant, that’s how it goes. I never thought when I picked up my little peeps from the feed store that it would lead me into political activism, public speaking and now documentary filmmaking. It was difficult to give up my own chickens, but I find solace knowing I have helped make a difference in other communities around the nation. Along the way, I’ve made some good friends and now know that “chicken people” are some of the most down-to-earth, most genuine people I’ve ever met. I’m honored to be in their company.
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 http://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 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.