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September 1, 2011

Council OKs up to three hens in city back yards

Chickens are no longer backyard outlaws in Sacramento.

With a unanimous vote Tuesday night, the City Council passed an ordinance that will allow city residents to keep up to three egg-laying hens in their back yards starting Nov. 1.

The new law was lauded by advocates of the slow-food movement and environmentalists.

"Allowing people who have a home and a yard in our city to not only grow fresh produce for themselves but also to have chickens goes a long way toward addressing food security," said Councilman Rob Fong.

Households that want to keep chickens will be required to pay $15, plus an annual fee of $10 per chicken. No roosters will be allowed.

And for those concerned that the new law will lead to chickens roaming city streets, the law requires that hens be kept in pens, coops or cages at all times. Those holding areas must be at least 20 feet from a neighbor’s home.

Chickens will be tagged for identification.

Despite the overwhelming support of city officials, not everyone is sold on the keeping of hens.

Land Park resident Ken Caldwell wrote in an email to the council that he was concerned by the noise, smell and regulation of chickens. He also said backyard chickens could become health hazards.

"It is a bad idea to allow barnyard animals in an urban environment," he wrote.

Dr. Glennah Trochet, the county’s public health officer, said she has spoken with state health officials and poultry experts at UC Davis and neither recommended striking down a backyard chicken ordinance because of concerns over disease, including the bird flu.

While some residents still have their reservations, one person who has changed his mind and supports backyard chickens is Mayor Kevin Johnson. And all it took was a chat with one of Northern California’s best-known chefs.

Johnson spoke Monday with Alice Waters, founder of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse restaurant. Waters is a chief member of the slow-food movement, which advocates for locally-grown products and healthy, organic food.

Waters told Johnson there should be "a strong commitment to healthy food and understanding that a community can raise its own food and eat its own food that’s healthy and affordable, and her point is that Sacramento should be leader (in that movement)."

As for whether Johnson will keep backyard chickens of his own at his new digs in east Sacramento?

"Let me be really clear," he told reporters, "my house will not have any hens in the backyard."

The number of chickens already residing in Sacramento backyards is unknown, but city officials hear from as many as 500 residents a year complaining about chicken noise, chicken smells and other chicken-related effects. Those calls are expected to continue, even with the new law.

However, for east Sacramento’s Irmagaard, Magdalena and Elvira and what could be hundreds more chickens across the city, the ordinance provides amnesty.

Sarah Weaver, who keeps the three chickens in a pen in her backyard, couldn’t be happier.

"They’re cheap, easy and fun," she said. "And our neighbors love them. We give them all eggs."

Weaver considers herself a responsible chicken owner, having traded in a rather noisy bird for the much quieter Elvira recently. Elvira, who Weaver said lays "chocolate brown eggs," had ended up in an Oak Park backyard from points unknown and is now a rescue chicken.

Said fellow backyard chicken supporter Randy Stannard, "This isn’t really just a fad anymore. This is something we have an opportunity to lead on."

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