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Friday October 24th 2014

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Escambia Takes Another Look
By Jeremy Morrison

If Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson can have dogs, then why can’t county residents have chickens?

“They poop in my backyard and they bark and we seem to get around that and make it work,” the commissioner said recently.

Robinson is currently supporting an effort to allow for backyard chickens in Escambia County. The county effort mirrors a push in the city of Pensacola last year that resulted in an ordinance that sanctions and defines the practice.

“If you can have chickens in East Hill,” Robinson said, “I don’t understand why you can’t have them in Cantonment.”

The practice of keeping chickens on residential properties has become popular in recent years. It is one aspect of the urban-farming movement—something Escambia County Director of Planning and Zoning Lloyd Kerr describes as “kitche and kind of neat.”

Last year, the city of Pensacola saw an ordinance passed that allows for up to eight chickens in a residential setting. Chicken enthusiasts worked with city staff to write up an acceptable set of rules. As Interim County Administrator George Touart told the county commission, “it hasn’t been a real problem so far in the city.”

Initially, county officials were not receptive to the concept of backyard chickens. After being briefed on the issue by Kerr and his staff on Valentine’s Day, the commission quickly chalked the matter up as a non-starter.

Commissioner Wilson Robertson said he had heard from citizens who were “fed up with all the chickens.” Kerr noted that a member of his staff had become a “chicken expert” and told the commission that allowing backyard chickens would end up costing the county a few hundred thousand dollars.

The cost-estimate consisted of $134,505 for three new animal control vehicles, as well as the hiring of three new animal control officers, at $38,475 per, plus another $1,000 each for certifications.

“Did you total up all these costs anywhere?” asked Robertson, before high-balling his own rough-math: “—in the 3-400,000-range.”

The numbers seemed to shake the commission. Commissioner Lumon May balked at the estimated chicken-costs taking priority over other needs—“we’ve got 14 community centers that aren’t staffed”—while Commissioner Steven Barry said he would be “a little bit more stoked about spending that kind of money” if he’d heard from more constituents on the issue.

“What’s the alternative? We can’t afford that,” Robertson turned to Kerr. “Should we just not allow chickens in areas other than agricultural?”

“I think that’s one alternative,” Kerr said.

The commission—sans Robinson—decided unanimously to take a pass on backyard chickens.

“If people apparently want to raise chickens and farm animals, they’re going to have to go into these agricultural areas,” said Robertson.

Outside the meeting chambers, Kerr stuck to his cost estimates. He wasn’t sure why the city of Pensacola hadn’t incurred such costs, and said the county numbers had been worked up in-house within the Code Enforcement Department.

Kerr also said that many communities are currently struggling with the popularization of urban farming and noted that backyard chickens pose “some real considerations.” He mentioned they might attract rats or snakes, or that other problems, such as cock fighting, might arise.

“You know, some people train chickens to fight,” the director said.

Standing in the lobby, Kerr said didn’t think chickens were completely off his table. He said the issues might get a second wind.

“I think it’s probably gonna come around again,” Kerr said.

A week later, Commissioner Robinson laughed off the Valentine’s Day presentation.

“You can find any reason you want to kill something,” he said. “If you’re lukewarm going into it, you can create a bunch of costs.”

Other commissioners also seemed to have warmed up to the idea of allowing backyard chickens. Barry said he had heard from a number of pro-chicken constituents and since found his position “dramatically changed.”

The commission decided to hold off making a decision on backyard chickens. They wanted to explore the matter deeper. Or, as Barry said, have staff reassess and “come back with something that can work.”

Not everyone had softened. Commissioner Robertson was still protective of residential properties, areas zoned as R-1. He asked that such properties be spared any chickens.

“Now, if you’re R-2 or above, maybe,” he said.

Though they had removed the chicken-option from the chopping block, commissioners still enjoyed a packed-house public forum prior to their regular Feb. 25 meeting. People came out to show the officials they were passionate about raising chickens.

Speakers talked about the urban farming movement. They talked about spending quality family time while caring for their chickens. Some mentioned the importance of striving toward self-sustainability.

“I want to tell all the people supporting the chicken issue,” Commissioner Lumon May told the crowd, “I grew up in the urban core of Morris Court and I didn’t know what a white egg was until I was grown—it was all brown eggs—and without chickens and eggs and a garden, we would not have been able to eat.”

A day after the commission decided to rethink the county’s rules concerning backyard chickens, Commissioner Robinson said he thought accommodations could be worked out. He noted that the city of Pensacola had not experienced negative impacts since enacting its ordinance and said the local efforts were part of a larger, national trend.

“If we’ve got responsible owners, I don’t see a reason we can’t make it work,” Robinson said. “It’s clearly something that’s happened nationally and I don’t think we can be out of step with something happening across the country.”

Currently Proposed Escambia Chicken Regulations
- No more than eight chickens
- Property must be minimum of one acre
- Coops and enclosures located minimum of 50 feet from adjacent dwellings
- No roosters
- Prohibits keeping chickens for sale
- Requires 30-foot property line setback