Changing the Chicken Laws in the City

A step-by-step guide for changing the chicken laws in your urban setting.

Perched Chickens

A couple of chickens, perched atop a roost in the backyard.

iStockphoto.com/Jordi Sole Marimon

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So it's illegal to keep chickens in your particular town. Others have changed those rules, and so can you. Here is our step-by-step list for changing the chicken laws in the city.

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The Fight for Raising Backyard Chickens in the City

  1. Find others to help – Use the Internet to find like-minded people and form a group. We used the forum on BackyardChickens.com. Your title should say something like “Help me change the law in Salem, OR,” so people in your town click to read more. Form a group, give yourselves a name and a logo, start a website/blog/Yahoo group, etc. 
  2. Understand current laws – The first step to changing your city’s code is to understand the current legal status. You have to know if chickens are allowed under specific conditions that need to be amended, or if you will need to draft a new ordinance. Don’t go by what you’ve heard; it’s best to get it straight from the horse’s mouth, as well as in writing. Most city ordinances are online. Start with the city’s official website, look under Code Enforcement or Zoning. After you find the city’s codes, search for key words like “livestock,” “poultry,” “fowl” and “chickens.” You may have to search under different sections, like Animals or Sanitation. Be creative, think of every possible way it might be listed. Be sure to search under your city’s definition section. In Salem, for example, the definition of livestock includes chickens, and, in another section, it states that livestock is not allowed in the city. However, in the Land Use section, there is a list of approved “special uses” including the keeping of a potbelly pig. This provided good leverage for our fight. (Think about it – you can have a 100-pound pig in the city but not a 3-pound bird that gives you eggs!) Look for things like that to help your case. Then, we strongly urge you to contact your local code compliance officer to verify your interpretation of the code.  
  3. CHECK nearby cities – E-mail the code compliance office, mayor’s office and city commissioners in nearby chicken-friendly towns and ask them how their policy works and if they consider it a success. Draft an ordinance, or amendment to an existing ordinance, that is practical for your town (most cities don’t allow roosters, limit the number of hens to six or less, and have 20-foot setbacks from property lines, etc.). Make your ordinance similar to what others have done and what has proven to work. Don’t press your luck by trying to allow roosters, ducks, goats, etc. Keep it simple.  
  4. Put together an informational packet – Based on the information you collected, modify our Research Packet (find it at www.Chicken-Revolution.com/Research_Packet.pdf), making it appropriate for your area. Include letters of support. Be factual and cite references. Be sure to include maps, charts, graphs, tables and photographs. Add a table of contents and make it easy to locate information. 
  5. Recruit support – Send your information packet to local neighborhood associations and offer to give presentations. E-mail your packets to agencies that promote sustainability, gardening and feeding the hungry − and ask for their top officials’ endorsements. Add these to your packet, which will continue to grow and need to be continuously updated.  
  6. Get the media involved – I know it’s scary to get the media involved and risk inviting opposition, but you will find a lot more support once the word gets out. You will discover there are illegal chicken owners out there who want to get involved because they are tired of hiding. Contact your newspaper’s “environmental” reporter and pitch a “living green” story. Once this hits city hall, the media will be contacting you. Imagine my surprise when I received an e-mail from The Wall Street Journal. Then an Associated Press reporter contacted me. Next, it was Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud” show. Even if the articles are not as favorable as you had hoped (often the case), remember that any exposure is good. 
  7. Take it to City Hall – You’ve done all the research, garnered support and printed a professional packet. Now it’s time to contact your city council member and ask that the issue be put on the agenda. It’s best to have the issue supported and “hosted” by a council member, but if that’s not possible, find out how your city council meetings function and if there is an opportunity for public comment. That’s what we had to do in Salem. They refused to put us on the agenda, so we took advantage of the comment period at the end of every meeting. We handed out packets and had various speakers read prepared speeches. Learn the protocol for bringing an item up for discussion with your public officials.  
  8. Follow through – Plan for this to take months to accomplish, and that’s after several months of preparation. Changing a city ordinance is not easy or quick. Be persistent. If they think you will give up, they’ll stall and try to avoid the issue. Make sure they understand you are serious and determined, but remain polite, professional and factual at all costs. 
  9. Be respectful and courteous – No matter how it might seem, you will likely get more accomplished quickly if you keep your cool during the entire process. When dealing with public servants and elected officials, remember that these people are trying to do their job and represent their constituents. If you need to vent, call a friend – blowing up at the mayor during a hearing might not be the best course of action.