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Chick, chick, chickens causing a stir

by Jordan Green

A rooster named Elvis was the cause of the trouble.

Brian Talbert and Amy Williams, respectively a school maintenance director and a student at Elon University School of Law, had been keeping three Rhode Island Red hens in the backyard of their home in Greensboro’s Lindley Park for several months unbeknownst to most of their neighbors.

One day their Jack Russell terrier Tonka attacked one of the hens, and the couple had to slaughter their pet Nancy. Williams cried. To restore the balance of power among the animals, Talbert borrowed the meanest rooster he could find from his aunt in Eden. That would be Elvis.

“Roosters will fly up and kick their feet up,” Williams said. “They have talons on their feet. It’s called flogging. He did it to Brian too. The dog is scared of him. I’m scared of him. It wasn’t much of a fight. I think the dog just ran away. He’s very protective of the hens.”

Elvis’ residency introduced a loud, crowing wake-up call to the neighborhood every morning at dawn, in contrast to the hens’ gentle clucking. Within a week, a neighbor called in a complaint to the city’s zoning enforcement division. Talbert received a violation notice from Zoning Enforcement Officer Barry Levine on Feb. 18, informing him that the city allows one chicken per 1,000 square feet but that the coop must be at least 50 feet away from the property line. With a width of about 70 feet, Talbert’s lot is too narrow to allow him to have a coop anywhere on the property.

Williams noted the irony that the couple would be allowed to keep their chickens if they got rid of their coop, but then the birds would be vulnerable to hawks and other predators.

Talbert had promised to remove the two hens and rooster over the last weekend to comply with the city’s order. Meanwhile, Williams planned to don a chicken suit and stake out an Earth Fare grocery store to collect signatures for a petition to amend the city ordinance to allow urban chicken keeping. She said she advocates an ordinance that would allow single-family residences to have up to six hens, but she would support a prohibition against roosters due to their comparative noisiness.

“They’re less work than dogs,” Williams said of the hens. “All you have to do is feed them twice a day, let them walk around and eat garden slugs, and collect the eggs that they lay. Most people don’t know what chickens are like. They think they’re dirty, smelly and loud. They’re not loud. They don’t make any more noise than a cat.”

Talbert and Williams also keep bees, which like chickens, puts them in violation of the city ordinance because their lot is too narrow to accommodate the hives. The couple hasn’t yet been told to get rid of their bees, Levine said, but only because enforcement is driven by complaints. He said he believes it’s only a matter of time before the same neighbor who complained about the chickens makes an issue of the bees.

“Bees don’t crow; they will sting,” he said. “They don’t make a noise disturbance. That must be why we haven’t gotten a complaint.”

Levine was hard pressed to say what harm poultry and bees might cause to neighbors.

“The ordinance was approved in 1982,” he said. “I’m not sure what the authors of the ordinance intended. I think they might have intended that they be on a larger lot so it’s less of a nuisance.” He readily acknowledged that getting rid of the coop but keeping the chickens would hardly allay the neighbor’s concerns. “Running loose is not a good thing because they could get into someone else’s yard, and then they would be crowing under someone else’s window.”

For Williams and Talbert, a principle is at stake. By raising their own poultry, they see themselves as circumventing a factory farming system that confines animals to claustrophobic cages and pumps them full of drugs before slaughter. They know at least two other households in Greensboro where chickens are raised. They’ll comply with the order, but they want to change it to forge a path so that others can come behind.

“It’s kind of an underground movement in Greensboro, having chickens,” Williams said, adding that she knows at least two other households quietly maintaining broods. Many residents do so without receiving complaints from their neighbors and with apparently little fear of discovery. When local blogger Ed Cone initiated a discussion of Williams and Talberts’ fight with the city, Billy Jones, a former mayoral candidate who goes by the handle of “Billy the Blogging Poet,” quickly offered to brief Williams offline on a loophole that would allow them to skirt the restrictive ordinance.

Levine said he sees evidence of livestock husbandry more as an ebb and flow than a growing trend in Greensboro. In 10 to 12 years, he’s received two complaints about horses, and one complaint about a cow that got loose near Franklin Boulevard. The city recently ordered a resident of Starmount to get rid of a goat kept for the purpose of controlling undergrowth because the lot was too small.

Bringing five to six complaints a year, chickens appear to be the most common livestock raised in Greensboro, likely because of their relatively small size.

“Certain people from their native countries keep those around for fresh meat,” Levine said. “Hispanics like fresh poultry as a rule. Vietnamese. Chinese sometimes. Usually the complaints come back to those folks and they take care of it. The hens don’t seem to bring so many complaints. The roosters do.”

The city only investigates alleged violations of regulations on poultry and bees when complaints are received because its zoning enforcement division simply doesn’t have the resources to check every backyard, Levine said.

“I was over at Biscuitville on Wendover Avenue and there was a rooster going across the parking lot,” he said. “I didn’t follow him to see where he went. He might have had a coop somewhere in the county. I didn’t go chasing the rooster. Even if one’s running loose, I’m not necessarily going to investigate.”

Elaine Belanger, editor of the Wisconsin magazine Backyard Poultry, sees renewed interest in urban chicken farming.

“There’s really an interest in people wanting to be more self sufficient, and knowing where their food comes from, and the pleasure that can come from raising chickens,” she said. “I don’t think people, until they’ve raised chickens, know how great a pet they can be. They’re very friendly pets, and anyone who has ever shown poultry can tell you how well they train. They like to be petted, which is a surprise for a lot of people. It’s an easy thing for children to learn responsibility from.”

Belanger noted that the city of Madison passed an ordinance allowing residents to keep chickens about five years ago.

Last June, a Chapel Hill resident petitioned to amend the town’s land use management ordinance to permit chickens in residential neighborhoods. The planning department recommended against changing the current regulations in September, expressing concern in a memo to Town Manager Roger L. Stancil about “incidents with family pets” and opining that “an amendment to the town’s ordinances permitting chicken in more residential zoning districts would result in increased land use conflicts between neighbors, involving greater demands on staff resources.”

Other cities, such as Portland, Ore., are more permissive. The city allows residents to keep a combination of three or fewer ducks, chickens, rabbits and pygmy goats without a permit. Those who want to keep bees and pigeons must obtain the signatures of all neighbors within 200 feet.

Some view urban chicken husbandry within a global social movement geared towards increasing food security and improving quality of life for poor people who have less access to quality, affordable food.

“People are trying to grow more of their own food locally so they don’t have to go to grocery stores and be subjected to the agri-food industry, to be subjected to processed food, the meats that are pumped full of hormones and antibiotics from animals confined to feed lots, and so they can avoid some of the horrible poultry operations that produce the kind of lousy meat that is cheap and fills our supermarket shelves,” said Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director of the California-based Institute for Food and Development Policy.

While it’s difficult to track the trend lines with the more clandestine urban livestock operations, Holt-Gimenez said it’s clear that urban gardening is increasingly popular in the United States and around the world.

“Here in the US people are being poisoned by processed food and food that is high in carbohydrates and salt,” he said. “You have such high rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity, a diet-related epidemic of health problems that people are trying to extract themselves from and heal themselves, particularly in inner cities in under-served communities, places where people of color live, where the food is very bad or they can’t find places to buy food because the supermarkets have pulled out,” he said. “They can’t even get lousy supermarkets, so they’re forced to shop at fast-food restaurants and liquor stores.”

While favorable discussion has flourished on the local blogosphere, and while media outlets have lavished attention on Williams and Talbert’s cause, the debate has made only a minimal impression on the city’s elected leadership.

“My first reaction is that Greensboro is an urban center, and that would necessarily preclude non-domesticated animals that poop everywhere and stink,” said Mike Barber, a councilman who represents District 4. “And crow. And cluck. Is there anything else I missed?”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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