The Visalia City Council held a public hearing Monday, June 1 to discuss allowing chickens in standard residential areas. This hearing comes on the heels of a Visalia City Planning Commission where the ordinance was rejected in its current form. The commission did not reject the idea outright, but felt the ordinance should require coops and possibly a permitting process.
After an hour-long hearing, the city council voted 3-2 against amending the city ordinance to allow chickens in residential areas. The vote was council members Greg Collins, Steve Nelsen and Bob Link against, and Amy Shuklian and Warren Gubler in favor of amending the ordinance.
As during the Planning Commission hearing, pro-chicken constituents outnumbered the anti-chicken constituents 13 – 2. The pro-chicken attendees were buttressed by a large contingent of miniature goat supporters. The two groups have become intertwined as kindred spirits in their quest for food freedom and private property rights. The pro-goat group held a rally outside of the convention center before the regular city council meeting. Their group has been trying unsuccessfully for about a month to get the city council to put their cause on the general meeting agenda. They want keeping mini goats, along with chickens, to be legal in standard residential zones.
Although, at the hearing, those in favor of allowing chickens outnumbered those against, Mayor Steve Nelsen disagreed that the majority of Visalians were in favor of raising chickens in town. He said that he took his own straw poll by email, walking the neighborhood, and at work, and found that it was actually 1% in favor and 99% against allowing chickens in residential zones. Nelsen felt that it was just a small, very vocal, and articulate minority in favor of chickens who attend meetings.
Nelsen said that there has to be a balance.
“I understand property rights, but I also understand neighbor’s rights,” he said. “What about my rights? I want to sit in my backyard and not smell a chicken coop.”
Nelsen added that Visalia is not an ag-center but rather is surrounded by agriculture. Collins expanded on that theme saying that chickens and goats are not banned throughout Visalia. There are pockets of areas zoned Rural Residential where those who want to raise farm animals can live. Collins said that approving the chicken ordinance would open the door to approving other livestock, such as miniature ponies, pot-bellied pigs and geese.
Collins explained the decisions the council makes now sets the groundwork for how the city will look in the future. Visalia has evolved into a metropolitan area and has become “more city-like” and less farm-like. He also said that approving chickens into the city limits would purposely cause land use conflicts, and in Collins’ 40 years as a city planner, he has seen many of them.
Collins emphasized that a city has rules and regulations to set the standards of how one conducts oneself. Nelsen echoed that sentiment by saying rules and regulations were put in place because not everyone does the right thing, and not everyone would keep the coops clean or abide by the four-chicken limit. He felt, as did Collins, that the city would pay the consequences if the council changed the ordinance.
There would be the need of increased code enforcement, and “code enforcement is maxed out,” Nelsen said.
Link expressed the same concerns about code enforcement. Link said he received an email from Bill Huott, a Northside Community activist, who felt strongly against chickens legally in his neighborhood
Huott wrote, “some of the most blighted and previously dangerous abandoned properties included a chicken coup. I know, I have cleaned these up. To refer to them as a hazardous dump site is a mild description, simply disgusting.”
Visalia’s Code Enforcement Agency would be expected to deal with these out-of-compliance chicken coops on top of substandard housing, sewage leeks, homeless, gangs and sign ordinance among other duties, but with no extra staff.
Link also based his decision on the fact that he does believe that chickens smell and that they spread disease. Link said that “for some, his is the wrong decision but for others it is the right decision.” When he took into consideration how this would affect the entire community he decided to vote no.
A cross section of Visalians, young, old, liberal, conservative, men and women, showed up at the planning commission hearing on May 11, to express their support for raising chickens in town. The same arguments were presented by just as diverse a group at the June 1, city council general meeting. The unifying theme between the different speakers was how our freedoms were slowly disappearing.
Equating taking prayer out of schools with denying residents the right to raise chickens on private property has united the liberals with the Central Valley Tea Party. The advocates spoke of the benefits to their garden, education for their children, and being an economical and healthy source of food. They also referenced studies confirming that chickens in residential areas do not spread diseases, but rather the industrial farms do.
The only new argument put forth in favor of the chickens in standard residential zones was presented by two young mothers. After insinuating that the council may be too old to understand the financial realities of raising a young family, one mother explained that living in the country, or in the rural residential zone, is not a possibility. She and her husband live on a military salary and living in the country or rural residential areas is too expensive. They want to be home owners but, as most people do not realize, rural homes are beyond the average person’s budget. The proponents of individual property rights said that those who could only afford a home inside a residential zone should have the right as wealthier people living on rural properties.
Although the council vote is final this is just the beginning of the grassroots movement. The pro-goat and pro-chicken residents said the city council vote will chase away prospective home buyers from moving to Visalia.