by Christine Heinrichs
Christine's website, blog
"As with any agricultural enterprise in our complex
world, raising chickens is subject to a variety of laws and regulations.
Finding out what they are and abiding by them will save you many
Raising chickens is generally governed by local zoning
and land-use laws and ordinances. With the advent of the NAIS and
individual state systems, you may also have to register your premises
with the state and identify every chicken you own.
Local law may not be the only standard you have to
meet. Some planned-unit developments place restrictions on the deeds
that prohibit livestock, which is generally understood, if not specified,
to include chickens.
Keeping land in agricultural use provides green space.
Small farms, under pressure from development as cities expand, may
be able to present economic value if they are producing eggs and
meat for local markets. Planners are learning the value of green
space and may be amenable to persuasion of the importance of small
Local Poultry Ordinances
The laws regulating chickens will be part of the municipal or community
laws that govern your property. That could be a city ordinance or,
if you live in a rural area, it could be the county policy. Your
local health department may also have a role in regulating the raising
of poultry. In addition, your deed may have restrictive covenants
that include chickens. Laws generally regulate the number of chickens
permitted, crowing roosters, waste, smell, housing, and backyard
Chickens are usually classified as livestock or barnyard
animals. That makes some people think of them as unsuited to urban
and suburban life. Negative attitudes about the status and connotations
of keeping chickens in the backyard have resulted in restrictions
on them and outright bans.
Locate accurate information from your local government.
Most local governments have online resources for those who have
Internet access. All local governments are required to provide information
to the citizens who live within their boundaries. In some states,
municipal authority to control livestock and poultry may extend
beyond the municipal boundary. Start with the information desk in
the municipal building. Keep asking questions until you find a local
government employee who is knowledgeable. As a general rule, erroneous
information provided by a local government official is not a defense
for violation of a local ordinance.
Where a restrictive covenant in a deed regulates
poultry, local government officials will not have any information
about this. You should read your deed and consult an attorney if
the language that it contains is difficult to understand. If your
neighborhood has a homeowners' association, it may have adopted
rules governing the raising of livestock and poultry.
Extension agents, 4-H leaders, and high-school agriculture
teachers are good resources for getting started, but they may not
know exactly what applies to your property. Check the original documents
to make sure you know what you have to do to comply with the law.
If the law is unclear or confusing, ask for help.
If no one knows for sure about chickens, pursue the question further.
The animal control officer may know how the community deals with
chickens and chicken coops, or be able to direct you to someone
If no one, including your elected representatives,
can determine what is meant by the law, you may be the person to
lead a movement to change it. This happened in Madison, Wisconsin,
where, up to 2004, no laws prohibited chickens, but building a coop
for them was not allowed. Chicken-lovers kept chickens in their
yards, a sort of open secret. So long as no one complained, there
was no problem. Occasionally differences arose among neighbors and
a city inspector would come out and talk to the chicken owners,
sometimes even telling them they would have to get rid of their
Sometimes they did, and sometimes they simply moved
them down the street to a friend's yard for a few months and then
quietly moved them back. They considered themselves the Poultry
In 2003, Alicia Rheal and Bryan Whiting decided to
get the law changed to make chickens legal in Madison. Seattle,
Washington, and Portland, Oregon, already had ordinances on their
books, giving them models from which to work. Alderperson Matt Sloan
After six months of publicity to inform the public,
backed with experiences of other communities and the endorsement
of Mark Cook, a professor in the Poultry Science Department at the
University of Wisconsin, the city Common Council adopted an ordinance
specifying the conditions for keeping chickens inside city limits
in May 2004.
Being a good neighbor is one of the most important
ways to avoid complaints about your chickens. In addition to meeting
the basics of local laws, always keep your chickens clean and avoid
smells. Replace litter frequently and compost or dispose of manure
properly. It is a valuable fertilizer, but make sure you don't create
a situation that will offend your neighbors. Information about composting
can usually be obtained through your local cooperative extension
office. Landscaping can camouflage the chicken house and yard, making
it more palatable to neighbors.
Giving neighbors fresh eggs occasionally can win
over doubtful neighbors. You can also invite them over to meet the
chickens and explain your interest to them. Enthusiastic advocates
can influence detractors. They may never want chickens for themselves,
but at least they can be convinced to tolerate them in your yard.
Some communities have tightened laws about chickens
since the avian influenza scare of 2005. You may need to prepare
information to reassure neighbors and local officials that your
birds represent no danger to anyone.
A restaurant owner in Long Island has kept half a
dozen chickens, including a rooster, since he moved to the area
in the 1970s. He prefers the fresh eggs for the eggs Benedict he
serves his customers. A new law forbidding farm animals in town
was not immediately enforced. Existing businesses are usually protected
from new laws by a grandfather clause, allowing the business to
continue operating as it has in the past.
A homeowner in New Jersey had been keeping chickens
for a year before someone complained to the city. The Board of Health
investigated and found them in violation of local ordinance. After
consulting with a lawyer, the family decided to apply for a zoning
variance that would make their chickens legal.
These situations reflect the legal confusion that
exists in many places. Chickens trigger strong feelings in some
situations. Stay calm, research your options, and be pleasant and
polite. Nothing is gained from a shouting contest.
Ultimately, you are going to be part of a community.
With tact and goodwill, you can convince the community to include
Voluntary Agricultural Districts
A recent strategy to keep land in agricultural use is the voluntary
agricultural district. On the county level, land already in agricultural
use can be shielded from nuisance lawsuits and protected from nonfarm
Owners of land currently in agricultural use can
agree to be included in a voluntary agricultural district, exempting
them from sewer and water assessments that are required for residential
and commercial development. They usually have some protection from
being sued by new neighbors who don't want to hear the rooster crowing.
The agricultural district can work with insurers
to provide coverage for agritourism activities. The district offers
a structure through which landowners can advance public education
about agriculture. Forming a district can attract supportive infrastructure
such as feed stores, processing facilities, and marketing opportunities
for your eggs and meat.
In an era of mini-estates encroaching on agricultural
land, voluntary agricultural districts can maintain land near urban
and suburban areas in agricultural uses that enhance the open green
space. They are a tool to support agricultural uses against the
pressure of development. If your state has an agricultural district
program, information is usually available from your state department
of agriculture or your local cooperative extension office.
State and Federal Regulations
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has proposed
a system to identify every livestock animal in the country. Individual
states, such as Wisconsin and Indiana, have also passed laws requiring
all properties that have livestock to register with that state.
Find out what laws apply in your state in order to comply with them.
These programs have aroused a lot of controversy and resistance,
so implementation varies across the nation.
The USDA's National Animal Identification System
suggests giving every farm animal a seven-digit number and tracking
its every move off the premises on which it lives throughout its
life. Animal Identification Number is being used as the proper name
for this requirement, often seen as AIN. The goal is for animal
health officials to be able to trace back to the source of any disease
within 48 hours of its discovery.
Radio-frequency technology in the form of implanted
microchips is one possible means of tagging animals. Chickens and
other poultry may be allowed to be identified by numbered leg or
wing bands. Animals that leave their premises for any reason, such
as to go to a show, will be required to have an identification number.
Even chickens that never leave their premises are encouraged to
Databases of identified animals will be kept either
through breed organizations, commercial producers, state premises
registration, or any other databases the USDA needs to track every
Organizations supporting sustainable agriculture,
rare-breeds conservation, and individual rights have rallied their
members to oppose NAIS. You can join them by contacting any organizations
of which you are already a member to find out what you can do to
oppose NAIS. "