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Thursday April 24th 2014

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Backyard Revolution

Chicken City
By Jeremy Morrison

As the children chased the chickens up the yard’s slight hill, their mother rattled off the reasons she likes keeping the family’s pair of birds in the backyard.

“It shows our children where our food comes from. It connects them to the earth where we all come from,” said Katy De La Piedra, later revealing a bowl full of more reasons in her fridge—“we have tons of eggs.”

In the backyard, the family keeps two chickens. They stay in a coop De La Piedra’s husband built, and stretch their legs running the yard.

“That’s Cupcake,” said her daughter Julia, scooping the chicken into her arms. “She’s an Americana.”

The other chicken’s a Silky. Both are Heritage Chickens. The little girl explained that Cupcake lays blue eggs.

“It’s part of their education,” De La Piedra smiled.

This mirco-farming scene isn’t playing out in the rural outskirts of Escambia County. De La Piedra’s family keeps chickens at their East Hill home in the city of Pensacola.

A seemingly increasing number of people are beginning to keep chickens inside the city limits; they keep them for pets, they keep them for eggs.

These city dwellers are also keeping their chickens despite two restrictive ordinances, risking run-ins with Pensacola Code Enforcement Authority. This troubles De La Piedra. She wishes the city rules were loosened and backyard chickens were given the go-ahead.

“Encouraged, really,” she said.

Earlier this spring, the urban chicken issue was brought to the attention of the Pensacola City Council. Alistair McKenzie—a local attorney and De La Piedra’s brother—told the council the matter should be on its radar and requested the board reassess the ordinances concerning chickens within the city limits.

“I myself am a backyard gardener and plan to have chickens in my backyard, as well,” McKenzie told the council, explaining the noted benefits of small-scale farming and locally produced food. “—I don’t think I need to go into the whole organic revolution and everything else that’s going on.”

The attorney requested that council members look to other cities that have embraced the backyard farming movement. While traditionally progressive locales like Portland, Ore. have long embraced backyard chickens, more recently places like Tampa, Fla. have loosened restrictions. McKenzie also mentioned that some local chicken keepers had attracted the attention of the city’s code enforcement officials.

A month later, on May 15, Paul Darling—another backyard farmer and East Hill resident—headed before the city’s Code Enforcement Authority. The man has received multiple visits from the city department.

“We have birds that run around our backyard eating bugs and laying eggs,” Darling said.

According to the East Hill resident, he doesn’t “have a beef with people” and prefers not to “rock the boat.” But he also doesn’t want to close his chickens up in a coop—which is a requirement of one of the city’s ordinances.

“I’m just not gonna sit there and take it and shut my chickens up in a pen—my pets!” Darling said, explaining that his birds’ wings are clipped in an effort to prevent them from going over his fence.

Currently, the city of Pensacola requires that chickens—as well as ducks and geese—be kept in an enclosure, such as a coop. It also requires that the enclosure be at least 50 feet away from any structure, including the resident’s own house.

“We don’t go around and hunt chickens, but if we receive a complaint we do go out and investigate,” said Steve Wineki, head of the city’s Code Enforcement. “It’s irrelevant to me. The ordinance is on the books so we have to enforce it as such.”

Wineki said he encourages citizens who disagree with a particular ordinance to pursue the issue with their representative on the Pensacola City Council. In some instances, the board has been persuaded to change city ordinances.

“We’ve changed several ordinances this year,” Wineki said.

When McKenzie looks at the city’s ordinances, he sees two primary issues: the enclosure rule and the distance requirement. The attorney contends that the 50-foot setback requirement cancels out most residential properties and the coop requirement deprives the animals of a free range.

“It’s not healthy for the chickens,” McKenzie said.

The attorney is currently working on a revision of the city’s backyard-chicken ordinances. He plans to submit the alternatives to the city council for its consideration. The effort has found a good bit of support, with local chicken enthusiasts taking to the Web with a Facebook page—Pensacola Backyard Chickens.

“People are really starting to come out of the woodwork,” McKenzie said.

Councilwoman Sherri Myers has already indicated she may well be open to reexamining the city’s ordinances. She’s attracted to the concept of self-sustainability and believes backyard chickens offer a healthier alternative to factory-farmed animals pumped full of antibiotics and hormones.

“I’m going to take a look at the ordinances and see if there’s not some way we can make it easier to have free-roaming chickens,” Myers said. “I think the idea of people raising their own eggs is good, and also healthy and also more humane—you know, factory farming is horrible.”

But the councilwoman does have some reservations.

“Things can happen to them, like dogs and cats can get them,” she said. “In my neighborhood, foxes. Coyotes, too, I guess.”

Something got a hold of one of De La Piedra’s flock a while back. It was a tough learning experience for the kids.

“That’s another lesson,” the mother said. “Absolutely, the wild is dangerous, that’s what happens.”

A few years back, Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson breached the chicken issue at the county level. Some of the more populated areas of the county do not accommodate chickens.

“We don’t just have dogs and cats as pets, we allow other things. Why can’t we have chickens?” Robinson said. “I don’t see why it’s a big deal.”

The commissioner was unsuccessful in changing the county’s rules. He’s intrigued that the city may now be picking up the issue, and said it could also be time to revisit county regulations.

“At the end of the day, for me, I couldn’t find much more difference than a dog,” the commissioner said.

Tom Garner is another Pensacola resident currently keeping his own chickens. He was actually able to find a piece of property that jived with city regulations.

“I don’t know if you’ve had fresh chicken eggs, but man, they’re good,” he said.

With an eye on the city’s ordinances, Garner spent two years finding a suitable property for his backyard ventures. He’s jumping into the urban farming revolution with both feet.

“We’re interested in gardens, chickens, bees—the whole thing,” he said. “The house, when we bought it, was just jungle; give me six months and I’ll whip it into shape.”

Excited about the permaculture possibilities on his property, Garner explained excitedly the concept of a ‘chicken tractor’—a 10X10 enclosure he will rotate periodically around his yard, allowing his chickens to naturally till and fertilize gardening plots.

“It’s cool,” Garner said. “It’s neat stuff.”

And while the backyard farmer’s two-year search yielded a piece of property that meets the city’s codes, Garner’s hoping officials will take a look at the decades-old ordinances and rework the rules to allow more residents to enjoy the benefits of the self-sustainability revolution.

“If we could get that tweaked,” he said, “that’d let a lot of people in.”