Fowl play

Residents of Chico who want to keep chickens are subject to the use-permit process

Brad Schreiber and son Sammy pet Ernie, a very docile laying hen.

Brad Schreiber and son Sammy pet Ernie, a very docile laying hen.

Photo By melissa daugherty

Brad and Shannon Schreiber wanted fresh, organic eggs when they picked up some chicks from a local feed store about nine months ago.

They were prepared. Brad built a coop and small corral out of recycled wood in the back yard of the couple’s roughly 100-year-old, quaint, white-trimmed blue home tucked along a well-kept block of Citrus Avenue, a few blocks away from the college neighborhoods.

The chickens—two hens—lay close to a dozen eggs between them each week. That’s more than enough for Brad and Shannon, along with their toddler son, Sammy, so the Schreibers give the extras to friends and family members.

Most everything has gone as planned with the birds. There are, of course, a few exceptions. See, the Schreibers didn’t expect to enjoy the chickens as much as they have. Sammy named the hens Bert and Ernie, and the 3-year-old has grown very attached to his feathered friends, a Barred Rock and Buff Orpington, respectively.

“I didn’t expect them to be such pets—friendly animals,” said a very pregnant Shannon during an interview Tuesday afternoon in her tidy, nearly quarter-acre back yard.

And that’s exactly why the Schreibers, both school teachers in Corning, are so distressed at the thought of losing the creatures. Unfortunately for the family, the concern is a very real one in this residential part of Chico, where, as it turns out, keeping chickens is subject to a use-permit process.

Chickens aren’t highly unusual in the Avenues. Brad knows of several people who own small flocks, as does this reporter. In most cases, these residents fly their chicken ownership under the radar—keeping the birds in back yards and getting the cooperation of neighbors.

The Schreibers keep Bert and Ernie out of the sight of the public right-of-way, but somebody found out anyway and turned them in. On Saturday (June 5), the couple got a letter from the city requiring them to do one of two things: get a permit for the hens or get rid of them.

Getting a permit for a chicken isn’t the same as, say, getting a dog license ($12.50 a year for spayed or neutered animals). For people in residential (R-1) areas who own their own homes, the permit, which is required under the municipal zoning code, is subject to an application process and the discretion of the city; and (perhaps most prohibitive to residents) it costs $1,416, plus a $135 fee for environmental review, according to Bob Summerville, a senior planner with the city.

The fee goes up significantly—to $2,799—for renters. There are some additional caveats when it comes to chickens as well. Only hens (no roosters) are allowed in residential areas, and the birds must be housed at least 20 feet from any occupied dwelling.

Summerville said the zoning code is filled with all sorts of use permits, and that those seeking one to keep fowl go through the same process as those attempting, for example, to build a gas station, establish a church, or operate a liquor store. One of the most significant steps in the process is to contact nearby residents to get their take on the proposed change.

Making sure the use is compatible with the neighborhood is increasingly important with the city’s goal to increase urban density, thereby avoiding sprawl, Summerville added.

It wasn’t always such a process to be able to house chickens, which fall under the city code for “animals and fowl.” Summerville said the city used to issue animal permits (for livestock) at a cost of $50. As Chico’s population increased, however, and it became clear that planning staff was spending a lot of time on the permits, which still required the same noticing procedures, city officials decided the animals should be subject to use permits.

Summerville has worked for the city for close to two decades and has been a zoning administrator for the past couple of years. He said he hasn’t seen a lot of requests for animal use permits in recent years. Then again, he acknowledged it is possible people are simply keeping chickens on the sly.

“Unfortunately, that’s contrary to the law,” he said.

Summerville added that the code can be amended by the Chico City Council.

Chico Mayor Ann Schwab said this is an ideal subject for an upcoming joint meeting of the Chico Planning Commission and City Council to discuss the city’s draft general plan. In fact, land-use and sustainability are the topics of the June 22 meeting, she said.

Schwab said a couple of constituents have contacted her about he subject of keeping livestock.

“I understand that a lot of people want chickens so they can have fresh eggs, and the general-plan update would be the perfect time for the public to address that,” she said.

That meeting, however, comes too late for the Schreibers.

Brad is planning to plead his case to the City Council at its next regular meeting, on Tuesday (June 15), which is a day after the family’s deadline to make a decision about their hens. In the meantime, he is trying to get an extension. He noted that other California cities and counties are making exceptions for chickens, which are a far cry from other livestock (pigs, cows, sheep, etc). Placer County’s Planning Commission, for example, is currently working on a code amendment to allow six hens on lots of at least 5,000 square feet and eliminating the now-necessary permit.

Bert and Ernie were hardly noticeable during a recent visit to the Schreibers’ home. The couple say the birds do cluck at times, but they insist the creatures are much quieter than dogs in the neighborhood.

Brad said he would be willing to pay $100 to keep the birds but that the city’s current fee is out of the question.

“I can’t imagine getting rid of them either, mostly because of Sammy,” he said.