All Cooped Up
Those who appreciate high-quality eggs — or just a different kind of pet — are flocking to backyard chicken coops, but some have to fight city codes
This might rub some furry-pet lovers the wrong way, but feathered friends are rising in popularity.
Pets Weekly made raising backyard chickens one of its "Top 10 Pet Trends of 2013."
"We have noticed a marked increase in the number of people who keep chickens in an urban setting," the February article reads. "What started as a rise in preppers keeping poultry for survival purposes has now become a statement by the general populace that we demand high-quality, safe food supplies."
BackYardChickens.com has a community of more than 160,000 chicken owners. Backyard Poultry magazine prints and distributes nationally an average of 75,000 copies per issue. According to Mother Earth News, pastured chickens lay eggs that contain four to six times as much vitamin D as typical supermarket varieties. The eggs have a third less cholesterol, a fourth less saturated fat, two-thirds more vitamin A, two times more omega-3 fatty acids, three times more vitamin E and seven times more beta carotene.
So what's the big deal if a Northeast Florida resident wants to build a backyard coop and raise chickens for home egg consumption?
If you live in St. Augustine, go for it. If you live in Jacksonville, it's illegal and a neighbor ratting you out can result in some pretty heavy fines until you find a new home for your flock. This is exactly what happened to Jacksonville resident Lauren Trad.
"In 2009, we went on a family vacation to Costa Rica and stayed on a working dairy farm," Trad said. "The place had just built a coop and my daughters became obsessed with the chickens."
A few months later, Trad built her own backyard coop at her home in the San Jose area where she lives with her husband, Chris, and daughters Leena, 9, and Cassidy, 6. She acquired four hens, or female chickens, for her brood. Male chickens are called roosters.
"My kids lost interest in a month or so, but I was completely hooked," she said. "I'd go out and feed them scraps from the kitchen and talk to them."
It wasn't long until Trad found out that backyard chickens are illegal to house on residential property in Jacksonville.
"Originally, I wanted someone else to get vocal about this ordinance, so we could change it," Trad said. "I thought if I got vocal, then I'd be cited and they'd take away my chickens."
Trad's biggest fear came true. It could have been a sighting by a neighbor or a city worker, but her hens were discovered. Trad received a citation saying she had 10 days to remove the coop and chickens from her home. If she didn't comply, she'd be charged a $250 fine per day.
Luckily for Trad and her fowl, her husband's family owns Trad's Garden Center on San Jose Boulevard. There have been wild chickens on that property since before the livestock ordinance was written in the 1960s, so the garden center is grandfathered in and allowed to host a coop and its residents.
But not everybody welcomes feathered flocks with open arms. Jacksonville resident Roberta Thomas is adamant that livestock and poultry belong in agriculturally zoned areas.
"I really resent the heck out of the city of Jacksonville attempting to rezone the property of my land or my single-family residential neighborhood," Thomas said. "The city has designated areas where chickens are currently allowed. Those who want hens should move to the already-approved, already-zoned areas and raise their hens."
East Arlington resident Ethel "Eddi" Parsons agrees. She had a personal experience back in 2004 when her neighbors started housing chickens in their backyard.
"We realized something was going on over there because of the odor," Parsons said. "As soon as the chickens went, so did the odor."
A vocal opponent of changing the existing ordinance, Parsons suggested that people who want to raise chickens for fresh eggs should form a co-op and tend to them on agriculturally zoned property.
On May 14, City Councilmembers Doyle Carter and Don Redman met with supporters and opponents to discuss a proposal to extend the ability to raise and keep hens for backyard egg production in residential zoned areas of the city. Dylan Reingold, a lawyer from the General Counsel's office who specializes in land use and environmental law, drafted the legislation.
As described in the meeting minutes, Carter and Redman showed concern regarding how far a chicken coop would be placed from the property line, as well as concern about poultry disease and waste. Redman stated that the legislation should go before the Public Health & Safety Committee and the Land Use & Zoning Committee.
Email and phone calls to Redman, Carter and Jacksonville City Planner Paul M. Davis were not returned by press time.
On a warm, sunny day at Trad's Garden Center, Lauren Trad, donned in a brown sundress and sandals, approached the coop and called out, "Hi, ladies." Five of six hens ran over to her, looking for any scraps she might have brought for them. "Hi, ladies," she cooed again.
"Jacksonville used to be named Cowford," Trad explained, picking small pieces of weeds and feeding them to her flock. "This was the crosstowns of cow country. In the 1960s, people wanted to get away from being known as agricultural hickdom, and so the government wrote ordinances regulating and restricting livestock on residential property."
According to the green-living resource Sustainable North Florida, "Currently, livestock is prohibited inside the city limits without agricultural zoning. But that hasn't stopped chicken coops from showing up all over prestigious urban neighborhoods like Riverside, San Marco, Springfield and throughout the suburbs, as more families search for healthy, affordable, local, sustainable food options."
When Trad was cited for having her flock of backyard hens, she said it was time to get vocal and fight the ordinance. "I was, like, ‘I'm going to be loud and obnoxious.' "
In February 2011, Trad founded Hens in JAX, a grassroots, nonprofit organization aimed at gathering support to help propose — and pass — a new ordinance allowing hens in residential low density (RLD) zones and in conjunction with a single-family dwelling in residential medium density (RMD) zones.
The University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) recommends that the size of a flock house (coop) should be based on a minimum of 3 square feet of floor space for each bird. This means 25 chickens will require about 75 square feet of floor space.
"Our current version of the proposal actually allows hens in conjunction with any single-family dwelling," Trad said. The proposed ordinance would allow each residence to have eight hens. For properties larger than one acre, eight hens would be allowed per additional half-acre. Roosters — those noisy boys — would be allowed only in agricultural (AGR) and residential rural (RR) areas.
Duval County residents can find the zone they live in through a property appraiser search here.
Elena Smith, a homeowner in St. Augustine's historic Davis Shores neighborhood, doesn't have to hide her hens or bribe nosey neighbors with fresh eggs. That's because it's not illegal to have chickens — even roosters — on residential property within city limits.
"It shall be the duty of each and every person to keep all chickens, geese, turkeys, ducks and other domestic fowls in an enclosure to be built with such suitable materials as to keep such fowls in the enclosure, such enclosure shall only be situated upon private property," according to the city of St. Augustine code of ordinances.
"Keep in mind that the city code does not say ‘chickens are allowed,' " explained St. Augustine Vice-Mayor Nancy Sikes-Kline, of the code that was established and enacted in 1964. "Instead, it just says chickens have to be in pens. It is assumed that chickens are allowed since they are not prohibited."
The Department of Agriculture reported recently that in four of America's largest cities — New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Denver — nearly one home out of 100 keeps chickens either for a fresh egg supply or as pets. Other cities that currently allow residents to keep backyard hens include Sarasota, Austin, Charlotte, San Francisco and Baltimore.
Smith has been raising her St. Augustine-based flock of three hens since they were only a few days old.
"They were living on the back porch until I felt comfortable enough to let them live in the coop in the wide outdoors," she said. "The construction of the coop was fairly easy, for a structure already existed in my backyard; I just had to close in the front with chicken wire and attach a hinged door with locks."
Now two years old, Smith's hens have forged relationships with her dogs and cat and spend time roaming freely in her pesticide-free yard.
"I have wanted to have my own chickens and small ‘urban farm' since I was a little girl and played with the animals on my cousin's West Virginia farm," she said. "I bought my house in this location because I knew that it was possible to keep chickens."
Chicken-keepers say there are many pros to allowing hens on residential property, but naysayers argue that chickens smell, are loud, carry disease and don't belong in an urban or suburban setting.
"I don't want the overwhelming stench of broken eggs or chicken poop, the fleas, the mites, the communicable bird diseases, the cackling or noise, the eyesore coops in the front and back yards, the electrical wire eyesores strung across properties to the coops for light or heat like a trailer park camp," explained Thomas of her opposition to the ordinance changes.
HensinJax.com aims to dispel those "misconceptions."
"An average dog produces a lot more waste than a chicken. A well-kept coop has almost no smell," the website explains. "Only roosters are loud, and we are not advocating for roosters."
"Chickens are no more likely to carry disease than any pet bird," HensinJax.com states.
"They are like my children, as much like all my animals," Smith said. "But these ladies serve a purpose — they provide me with amazing eggs, bug/pest control in the yard, and entertainment. I do not have cable TV, and that helps keep me outside where I belong. My neighbors all love the chickens, and I think it adds such vibrancy to the neighborhood."
In the city of Jacksonville code of ordinances, a household pet is defined as "an animal including, but not limited to: dog; bird; domesticated cat; rodent, such as a gerbil, guinea pig, hamster, domesticated mouse, and domesticated rat; domesticated or European ferret; rabbit; fish; nonvenomous reptile and amphibian; that is kept as subordinate to residential use for the purpose of providing human companionship."
The ordinance says poultry is not considered a household pet and describes poultry as "domesticated birds, such as chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, guineas and pigeons, that are usually raised for eggs and/or to provide food for humans."
Popular chickens for residential coops include the Buff Orpington hen, Barred Rock hen, Rhode Island Reds, White Leghorns and New Hampshire Reds. "Rhode Island Reds have a great temperament and are great layers. That's why I always preferred them," Trad said. "Plymouth Barred Rocks are a little more skittish, but are great layers. The mix we have at the garden center is due to the hens that we have been asked to take in, more than anything else."
Trad's flock at the garden center now includes six hens — Snowy, Big Buff, Feather Legs, Burrito, Pepper and Broody — all named by her two daughters.
"They're definitely creatures of habit," Trad said. "They like structure — laying eggs around the same time each day. Each chicken lays about six eggs per week and takes one day off. Isn't that what the Bible says?"
The Trad family donates the eggs and fruits and vegetables grown on the property to United Community Outreach Ministry (UCOM), a Southside not-for-profit charitable organization that organizes food drives.
"I can go to the grocery store," Trad said, "but there's a lot of people in our community who can't."
Trad's efforts to change the existing local ordinance to allow a limited number of hens to be kept on private property within Jacksonville have not gone unnoticed. She's met with members of the City Council, has more than 740 likes on the Hens in Jax Facebook page and continues to garner support from Avondale to Springfield.
"Nothing moves slower than government except city government," Trad joked. "Chicken-keeping people have a lot of pride, and I feel confident that we'll be able to change the ordinance to allow backyard hens on residential property."