Fowl rules

Chico City Council will take on the chicken debate

Chicken debate: The City Council agreed to take up the issue of residential chicken ownership at a future meeting, most likely Oct. 19. Visit to check for the item on upcoming agendas.

Tom Nickell is adamant that local residents should be able to own chickens. During the City Council’s regular meeting on Tuesday (Sept. 21), the councilman drilled that point into the heads of other elected officials and staff and asked that an immediate moratorium be placed on the city fees associated with keeping the animals.

His request was prompted by public outcry from those who see the fees for the creatures as prohibitively expensive. Nickell said he’s received phone calls and e-mails about the issue. He’s even been stopped on the street. And after conducting extensive research on the topic, he said it’s morally wrong to place such a hefty financial burden on people raising hens.

“I grow my own food and I want chickens,” he said, “but I don’t want to pay $3,000 for chickens.”

The councilman was referring to the costs associated with the city’s use-permit process, which the chickens are subject to under the current municipal zoning code. The regulations call for fees of about $1,550 and $2,900 for residential-neighborhood homeowners and renters, respectively.

Nickell’s colleagues got the message. They voted to agendize the issue at the “soonest available meeting.” That will give residents an opportunity to make their case about the birds, and based on the tenor of the meeting, those who currently keep chickens should not fear any fallout from the city.

According to Sherry Morgado, the director of the city’s Housing & Neighborhood Services Department, the only time code-enforcement officers confront chicken owners is when the animals generate a complaint. “We aren’t doing any type of proactive enforcement,” she insisted.

That’s good news for a lot of residents, including Councilman Jim Walker, who excused himself from the meeting somewhat sheepishly prior to the discussion. After the meeting he confirmed that he owns chickens and doesn’t have a permit.

Morgado also told the council that, out of the 3,600 complaints issued to the city during the last fiscal year, just 16 were related to chickens. None of the complaints resulted in a citation, she added.

That may be true. But resident Burt Levy claims code-enforcement officials who recently visited his residence for an unrelated complaint told him that, because he didn’t have a permit for his three hens, he needed to get rid of the animals.

“People are losing their chickens because of the fees,” said Levy, who was among four members of the public who spoke to the issue (all in favor of chicken ownership).

In urging the council to take swift action on the issue, Nickell noted that raising chickens for fresh eggs falls in line with the city’s commitment to sustainability. Allowing people to raise chickens is the right thing to do considering the economic hardships people are facing today, he said.

Nickell also pointed to the recent national recall of millions of salmonella-tainted eggs.

“This is not a land-use issue, but a moral issue,” he said.

Most of the council members appeared supportive of the cause, though there were some concerns about the amount of waste generated by the birds and their potential as a nuisance to neighboring residents.

Nickell explained that chickens should be subject to some regulations, including restricting residents to owning a maximum of four hens and prohibiting roosters. He also said that owners must mitigate related odors, noise and pests. Under his plan, a permit to keep the animals would be revoked should the owner receive five complaints.

The councilman suggested charging a $100 annual fee. That figure was met with some criticism from a couple of speakers, including Levy who said $50 would be more reasonable. Regular council attendee Michael Reilley agreed with Levy, noting that $100 can buy a lot of eggs.

Toward the end of discussion, the panel came to a consensus that the item should return on a future agenda. (City staff noted that amending the municipal code will require that the issue also be heard by the Planning Commission.)

Based on the city staff’s work load, the issue likely will be heard on Oct. 19.