Elected officials sometimes resort to clever tactics to dodge the dreaded chicken issue.
Many cities across the country already have chicken-keeping ordinances. Where they don’t, citizens are often lobbying for one – but some cities are more reluctant than others. Here in Oregon’s capital we have been fighting for the right to have three hens for the last year and a half. Nearby cities like Seattle, Portland, Eugene, and Corvallis have allowed backyard chickens for years, but not in Salem. Not yet, anyway.
Throughout the course of our struggle to legalize backyard chickens we’ve encountered an assortment of political obstacles. If you’re planning a chicken revolution of your own, be prepared to deal with one or more of the following stumbling blocks.
Clever Tactic No. 1 – Refuse to talk about it
The first step to getting elected officials to adopt a chicken-keeping ordinance is, of course, to discuss it with them. This requires putting the issue on the agenda for a city council meeting. When we emailed our representatives and politely asked if we could talk about this at an upcoming meeting, they refused. Fortunately, a little thing called Open Public Comment at the end of every council meeting allows citizens to bring up topics “other than those on the agenda.” We took full advantage of that!
Clever Tactic No. 2 – Stall whenever possible
After a couple of discussions at city hall about a proposed ordinance, our councilors decided not to decide. Instead, they referred the issue to the County Dog Control, an agency that only has authority over dogs. Two months passed while we waited for an answer we already knew would be no, the county dog control office will not enforce a chicken ordinance. Next, our councilors referred the issue to the Planning Commission. Because the City Council has the ultimate authority for making these kinds of decisions, this was another unnecessary step. Some people believe these referrals were nothing more than stalling tactics, meant to discourage us to the point of giving up and going away. Instead, we grew both in numbers and determination.
Clever Tactic No. 3 – Create a “Catch-22”
City councilors may try to set up an impossible-to-win, Catch-22 situation. In the beginning, our councilors emphasized the importance of showing enough community support for the proposed ordinance, so we worked hard on public outreach and education. As a result, we earned the endorsement of 13 of the 19 neighborhood associations, and proudly submitted a petition with more than 1,200 signatures. The council’s response was disappointing, to say the least. Based on the overwhelming community support we showed, some councilors then reasoned that too many people might raise chickens, which would create a code enforcement nightmare. They didn’t seem to understand that not everyone who signed the petition wanted to raise chickens, but rather believed in the right for people to do so. Be prepared to explain this.
Clever Tactic No. 4 – Use the fine print to your advantage
We were thrilled when our city staff finally drafted and recommended a chicken-keeping ordinance for the councilors to consider! Then we read the fine print. Three hens would be allowed only on lots larger than 10,000 square feet. According to local geographic information system (GIS) data, this stipulation would have disqualified more than 80% of Salem residents. After further negotiations, we were able to convince them that this was unreasonable – nice try, though.
Clever Tactic No. 5 – Pretend to take action
This particular tactic was employed in a nearby town, ironically called Independence. City councilors responded to a citizen’s request for a chicken-keeping ordinance by agreeing to send out a survey, along with a utility bill, to gauge community interest. However, the so-called survey simply asked “Should Independence allow backyard chickens?” It provided no further information, not a word about how this is common in other cities, that it would only allow for a few hens (no roosters), or any other details. Needless to say, the issue was shelved based on the results of this city’s rather weak attempt at taking action. Even so, it went down by just 18 out of 500 replies and generated a lot of questions. Efforts are now underway to try another approach.
Another Oregon city, Silverton, used a similar tactic. Gus Fredrickson, leader of Silverton’s chicken revolution, explains what happened in his own words:
“A very important part of the Silverton Grange’s mission is the promotion not only of local agriculture, but also local sustainability. Most may think that we mean these terms to apply to outside the city limits, in what would traditionally be viewed as ‘agricultural’ land. However, town and city folk have always had a tradition of some sort of personal ‘agricultural’ endeavor; whether a small garden plot in the backyard, or a couple of hens to provide fresh eggs.
“Over the years, our society has seen an increase of available commodities, often shipped in from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. This centralized approach to supplying our day-to-day subsistance has altered how we view our food and where it comes from. Postwar America encouraged this, while at the same time discouraging many of the traditional approaches that rural and small town people had used to supplement their nutritional intake with local food. From the 1950s on, we saw many municipal code changes that, while often well-meaning, had the effect of stifling local sustainable practices.
“We, as a Grange have consciously sought to reverse this unhealthy trend. We not only see it as a good idea to promote local nutritional sustainability, but also as essential for our future survival as a community and as a country. So when we read the front page story in the February 24 edition of the Silverton Appeal-Tribune, about the Council voting on the ‘Chicken Issue,’ our interest was piqued. Several of our Grange members, including myself, attended the March 1 City Council Meeting to present facts in support of this proposal. I managed to get in and grab a seat and agenda from the table.
“The place was packed full of supporters of the Silverton Skate Park. In fact, some of our members were turned away due to the large numbers. Nowhere on the agenda was the ‘chicken’ vote mentioned. At the opening portion of the meeting, when the Mayor asked for a show of hands for various issues, and he read through the agenda items, … ‘chickens’ were never mentioned. In the chaos, we assumed that the chicken issue, for whatever reason, would not be addressed that evening, so we left.
“Imagine our shock and surprise when opening the paper the following week to read that yes, it was voted on and was voted down. We, of course, learned too late that the ‘Chicken Issue,’ promoted with such fanfare in the paper, was in fact a small portion of Silverton Development Code Revision. Our bad for not researching the issue further. And the fact that the newspaper article likewise failed to mention the SDC, but rather referred to a ‘Chicken Ordinance,’ also contributed to the confusion. But many of us thought it odd that at least some mention was not given in either the agenda or during opening comments.”
Sometimes it takes a while for city officials to fully understand the issue and come around. Despite these setbacks, the people of Salem, Independence, and Silverton are making progress in their efforts to legalize backyard chickens. Recently, our city councilors voted unanimously to give it another look and are drafting a chicken-keeping ordinance for reconsideration at an upcoming meeting.
If you are contemplating a campaign to change a city ordinance, be forewarned of the difficulties you might encounter if your city is resistant to change. There is much to learn from our experiences that may help you avoid these types of delays, referrals and obstacles. By knowing ahead of time how your city politics work and by investing time and effort into public outreach and education in advance, you may be able to streamline the process where you live.