Note: This story was updated at 3:30 p.m.
The Oak Ridge City Council could consider a backyard chicken ordinance in May. If adopted, the ordinance could allow residents to have a small number of chickens, maybe up to a half-dozen hens, in places where they’re not allowed now.
Council is expected to use a Knoxville ordinance as a model. Knoxville allows domesticated chickens under an ordinance approved in 2010. An annual $25 permit is required to keep the birds, up to six chickens (hens only) are allowed, and they must be kept in a fenced enclosure at all times. They are for personal use only, and the slaughtering of chickens is prohibited.
Knoxville also requires a $50 fee for a building permit for the fenced enclosure and for a required henhouse, which must be covered and predator-resistant.
The Oak Ridge City Council could conceivably have several options in May: adopt the Knoxville ordinance without any changes, adopt a modified version of it, reject it, or defer it or send it to the Oak Ridge Municipal Planning Commission for further review. Planning Commission can’t accept it or reject it but can recommend that Council do so.
Oak Ridge officials have considered allowing backyard chickens before. In April 2010, the Oak Ridge City Council voted 4-3 against a resolution that would have kept alive a previous proposal. Two current Council members, Charlie Hensley and Ellen Smith, voted in favor of referring the proposal to the Planning Commission, which could have then consulted with interested residents and other city boards. The rejected resolution also would have directed former Interim City Manager Gary Cinder to draft an ordinance to amend the city code.
At the time, former Oak Ridge Mayor Pro Tem Jane Miller said a great majority of residents who contacted her were totally against the backyard chicken proposal.
But others, including former City Council member Anne Garcia Garland, said the issue deserved more study.
The Council’s rejection six years ago followed an 8-2 vote by the Planning Commission that recommended that city officials stop discussing the matter altogether.
Some conditions have changed since then. First, there are many new members on both the City Council and Planning Commission, and it’s not clear how the majority might vote today. Second, Knoxville didn’t have its ordinance in place when Oak Ridge considered the proposal six years ago.
Now, the Knoxville ordinance has been in place five years, and officials haven’t heard of significant problems, Smith said during a Tuesday evening work session.
“I think we have a good model that we could adopt,” Smith said.
She cited a few of the requirements that would be in place, including the domesticated chicken permits as well as 10-foot property setbacks. Smith said other communities who allow backyard chickens don’t have a huge number of people who apply for permits. About 60 permits have been issued in Knoxville, Smith said, in a city that’s considerably larger than Oak Ridge.
It’s not clear how Council might vote. On Tuesday, at least two members, Kelly Callison and Rick Chinn, spoke in favor of sending the proposal to the Planning Commission, rather than having Council “wordsmith” it.
Chinn said he’s heard a lot of passionate support for backyard chickens and a lot of passionate opposition. He’s had more feedback on this issue than on anything else during his 1.5 years on City Council, Chinn said.
“The Planning Commission, to me, is the best place to put this,” he said.
But Council member Trina Baughn objected to sending it to the Planning Commission, preferring that Council simply vote on it. Baughn wants to avoid what she suggested could be months of debate on the issue.
If the city does approve a chicken ordinance, Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said he wants to make sure policies are black and white in order to help the city settle disputes.
Officials said chickens are allowed in Maryville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Farragut under certain conditions.
During a recent interview, Kayla Wyatt, who is leading the current effort to allow chickens at more homes in Oak Ridge, said it’s an issue of sustainability. People who garden could use chicken compost for gardening—it’s among the best, Wyatt said—and backyard eggs are much healthier and fresher than store-bought eggs, she said. They also have way more nutrients and taste better, she said.
In addition, parents could use the chickens to help teach their children where food comes from and to teach them good eating habits, Wyatt said. It could also help teach responsibility and self-sufficiency, she said. And backyard chickens could be kept in more humane conditions than chickens in large farms, she said.
A few people have said those who want chickens should go live in the country, outside of the city, Wyatt said. But she said many cities—Knoxville, Memphis, Nashville, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, and New York City among them—allow chickens.
Oak Ridge advocates are only asking for up to six hens and no roosters, Wyatt said.
“We’re definitely willing to compromise,” she said.
Hens can lay eggs about once a day, or sometimes every other day, Wyatt said.
In Knoxville, an officer checks chicken coops, and six hens need a coop of at least 18 square feet and a run that is 90 square feet. There are measures to ensure that the hens are not a nuisance, including the required fencing and clipped wings when fenced enclosures are not covered.
Wyatt said she wants to reassure people that the proposal, if approved, won’t make Oak Ridge “trashy.”
“If Knoxville hasn’t had any problems, there shouldn’t be a problem here,” she said. “We’re responsible tax-paying homeowners. We should be able to use our property with good judgement and good stewardship.”
In March, Wyatt, a stay-at-home mother and student at Pellissippi State Community College, said a petition with 333 signatures had been submitted to the city, and she wanted to deliver 100 more.
In Oak Ridge, agricultural animals are currently allowed on land that is zoned RG-1. That property is agricultural and residential, and lots have to be at least 200,000 square feet with setbacks of 50 feet on all sides, with the exception of accessory buildings (farm buildings), which are required to be 100 feet from front lot lines.
There is quite a bit of land on the west end of Oak Ridge that is zoned RG-1 and other pockets of it elsewhere in the city. The so-called backyard chicken proposal would allow hens in other undetermined zoning districts.
In the past, opponents of backyard chickens have cited concerns about potential noise and odors, and they have said the hens could attract predators and other wild animals, including coyotes. Wyatt, who grew up in Oak Ridge and graduated from Oak Ridge High School, responded to those concerns, saying she had neighbors in Orem, Utah, who had chickens, and she didn’t even know because she never smelled or heard them.
“I never knew they were they were,” Wyatt said.
She said Oak Ridge has a lot of green belts, and that’s a perfect environment for animals like coyotes that might eat cats, but chicken coops probably wouldn’t draw the predators because chickens can be locked in at night, when they go to sleep.
While city officials consider their next step, Wyatt plans to continue going to meetings, speaking to customers at the Oak Ridge Farmers Market, and planning to attend this year’s Earth Day Festival in Oak Ridge. She’s hoping to “calm people’s minds and educate them about the benefits.”
It’s not clear how long any study, if approved, might take. It took about one year to pass the ordinance in Knoxville, Wyatt said.
Anyone interested in more information about the proposal can visit the Oak Ridge Backyard Chickens page on Facebook.
You can read the Knoxville ordinance here by scrolling down to Section 5-107 (Domesticated chickens).
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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