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Chapter 14: Legal Aspects
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 headaches.

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 farms.

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 butchering.

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 who does.

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 chickens.

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 Underground.

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 was sympathetic.

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 your chickens.

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 development.

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 be identified.

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 animal.

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. "

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©2004 Mad City Chickens. Designed and illustrated by S.V. Medaris, chicken-rancher & artist