Hens sent back to planners

Published 10:14 pm Thursday, January 19, 2017

Suffolk City Council voted during its meeting this week to move the issue of backyard hens forward, but several members said they have major concerns.

The issue has been under study for more than seven months. Wednesday’s meeting featured a public hearing on the topic.

Six people spoke in favor of allowing backyard hens during the public hearing. Later in the meeting, one person spoke against it.

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The city currently allows hens in agricultural, rural residential and rural estate zoning districts. However, the topic under consideration is whether to expand the areas where residents can keep hens to other single-family residential zoning districts.

Those in favor of the expansion spoke about their desire to keep chickens as pets and for the many benefits they provide, including fresh eggs and a reason to get up early.

“They are like pets to many people,” said Rick Sowards. “People are looking for a better alternative than what is available commercially in stores. They are fantastic at eradicating insect populations.”

The people who spoke also debunked common misconceptions about backyard hens — that they are loud and that they smell.

“If you have a smell, there’s a problem, and the problem is that the owner isn’t taking care of the chickens,” Sowards said.

Jeremy Fehrman said hens sometimes make noise when they are laying eggs — called the “laying song” — but “it’s no louder than what we are in this room right now.”

John Hooten noted that chickens are less dangerous than dogs, which are not as heavily regulated.

“Mail carriers don’t talk in the back room about being attacked by a chicken,” he said.

Although they didn’t all speak, more than 35 people in the audience were supporting the cause.

During their discussion, several City Council members said they have concerns about the issue but were still in favor of moving to the next step, which would involve drafting an ordinance to discuss.

“This has got a lot of implications in a lot of different areas,” Councilman Roger Fawcett said. “I’m in favor of sending this back and allowing the people an opportunity to get more clarity.”

A potential ordinance would regulate the number of hens, the type of enclosure in which they must be kept, setback requirements, permitting requirements and more.

“I do believe an individual should have a right to an activity on their own property as long as there’s not an adverse effect on anybody else in the neighborhood,” Councilman Mike Duman said, adding he would be in favor of requiring a permit to keep hens.

Councilman Tim Johnson, who has been pressing his colleagues for action on the issue since being elected to council two years ago, encouraged them to ask neighboring cities that allow backyard hens about it.

“I think you’d be hard pressed to find a problem, because there haven’t been any,” said Johnson, who keeps hens at his house, which has the proper zoning. “I think we’re really building this up to be something it’s not.”

The motion to direct planners to draft a proposed ordinance passed 7-1, with Councilman Don Goldberg in opposition. He said he had received clear direction from his constituents that they did not want chickens.

Rebecca Franklin, one of the leaders of the movement for backyard hens in Suffolk, said Thursday she thought the meeting went well.

“It’s just another part of the process,” she said. “Right now, my biggest concern is how this ordinance is going to come about and whether they utilize lot size or zoning category. If they just go with the zoning categories, that should be sufficient. They don’t need to do a minimum lot size.”

She also said she hope the issue can move forward quickly from this point forward, since it has now been discussed at every level it will have to go through — the Planning Commission, its ordinance subcommittee and the City Council.