Chickens can roost—for now

City Council temporarily solves backyard-hens problem

To be continued.

That was the theme during the Chico City Council’s special meeting Tuesday evening (Oct. 19) in which the panel was to address the controversial topic of keeping chickens in residential neighborhoods as well as conduct some follow-up discussion on the draft Chico 2030 General Plan.

The long-debated chicken issue was the only topic on the panel’s regular agenda, and it drew passionate responses from current chicken keepers who’ve been seeking relief from the prohibitively expensive use-permit fees associated with owning the birds. Under the current municipal zoning code, it costs about $1,550 and $2,900 for single-family residential homeowners and renters, respectively, to raise the birds legally.

Residents who are fond of that species of fowl have found a champion in Councilman Tom Nickell, who has been lobbying his colleagues to adopt more affordable fees. Meanwhile, chicken advocates like Burt Levy have been showing up at council meetings to fight for the right to procure their own food.

This time around, Levy rattled off the names of several big cities—including San Francisco and Portland—that allow permit-free chicken ownership.

“And we’re a farming community, and we can’t have reasonable fees to have chickens?” he asked.

Chickens have been discussed for months, having first come up back in June during a general-plan session focused on sustainability. Talk about the birds followed a CN&R story in which the city—prompted by a complaint from a neighbor—had instructed a local family to either get a permit for their hens or get rid of the creatures. Other chicken owners have been coming forward ever since. One of them happens to be Councilman Jim Walker, who recused himself from the discussion.

To resolve the issue in the near term, city staff recommended that the council reduce the permit fee to $100 for a 60-day window to allow residents to comply with the law. The idea, explained Planning Services Director Mark Wolfe, was that the fees would allow for the city to offset some of the costs associated with application-processing costs (this includes a hearing on the use-permit).

Long term, the issue could be addressed this coming spring during the panel’s update of the municipal code (Title 19).

The council also had the option of nixing the use-permit requirement in the municipal code. However, that revision would require public hearings by the Chico Planning Commission as well as the council, Wolfe noted. In other words, it would take months to go into effect.

Some council members seemed amenable to staff’s suggestion, but the public was not as agreeable. Most of the opposition had to do with cost. Resident Toni Young said she would support a $25 fee. She was echoed by Stephanie Elliot of GRUB, who proposed the same fee but for a 90-day period.

After conferring with City Attorney Lori Barker, the council agreed to direct the city to drop the fee entirely and to essentially ignore the use-permit requirement for six months. A unanimous vote (with Walker recused) came after Councilman Scott Gruendl added a friendly amendment, noting that the intention of the council is to take up the issue again during the Title 19 discussion. Councilman Andy Holcombe also amended the motion, noting that the no-fee structure should be revisited during that process.

Chico has not seen the last of the chicken debate.

Following the chickens, the Chico Planning Commission joined the council in an attempt to tie up loose ends in the general-plan update. The special joint session called for a re-examination of several controversial topics that surfaced during a marathon nine-hour meeting back in June on the sustainability and land-use aspects of the document.

In particular, they would take a look at the plans to include the Bell Muir region as a “special planning area” denoting the region as a potential place for future development. The Estes Road area, which the council previously opted to study, was also back on the table.

Surprisingly, the discussion generated more public comment than the chickens. Eighteen speakers addressed the panels, and not much was off limits. Landowners in the Estes Road area discussed the competing interests related to agriculture versus development, and talked about the pros and cons of annexation. (Protection of the Greenline was one of the prominent discussions.) The possible West Park Avenue Extension repeatedly popped up again. Other topics included groundwater protection, investing in renewable energy, traffic circulation, and urban density.

More than two hours into the discussion, after 10 p.m., Councilman Andy Holcombe and Mayor Ann Schwab moved to continue the meeting to the next evening (after the CN&R’s deadline). Overall, the tenor of the public comments reflected what Planning Commissioner Jon Luvaas asserted needed to occur with the general-plan process—a tightening up of the sustainability aspects of the document.

Luvaas noted numerous areas in which to buoy environmental protections. The effort, he said, would be a way for the city to protect the quality of life for future generations.

“I’d like to return what we’ve borrowed in the same condition, if not better,” he offered.