Chicken dance: Backyard birds become legal
If you are a singer-songwriter in the process of drafting lyrics about the irony that it’s illegal to raise urban chickens in a city known for country music — and there is at least one such artist out there — you can put down your pen. Thanks to a vote by Metro Council in January, it’s now legal to raise hens in the majority of Davidson County.
Well, it’s not technically legal yet, but renegade backyard farmers will soon have permission to strut their stuff — including fresh eggs and organic fertilizer — once a poultry-permitting process is put into place. After that, aspiring hen owners can apply for a $25 permit from the health department, which will be responsible for monitoring complaints.
Grassroots group Urban Chicken Advocates of Nashville (UCAN) worked with the bill’s sponsor, Councilmember Karen Bennett, to draft legislation that would minimize complaints from neighbors. After an earlier attempt at legalizing urban hens failed two years ago, the new chicken ordinance allows a maximum of six hens in predator-proof coops and covered runs positioned in the backyard, at least 10 feet from each property line and 25 feet from a neighbor’s residential structure. The law will be reevaluated in two years, after which it will either expire or be renewed.
Perhaps most importantly, roosters are prohibited, a fact that raised plenty of eyebrows among city slickers observing the urban chicken campaign. “But how do you get eggs if you don’t have a rooster?” they asked, almost comically underscoring the fact that we urban dwellers have become so distanced from the sources of our food that we have lost touch with basic biology. (Pssst, here’s a hint: Women ovulate regularly too, and that doesn’t mean we have babies every month.)
Furthermore, chickens will still not be allowed in neighborhoods where homeowners’ associations prohibit backyard poultry.
UCAN members and other hen supporters showed up at Metro Council, dressed in yellow and even wearing feathers, to extol the virtues of urban hens. (Eggs are low in cholesterol and high in nutrients, reduced food waste, organic fertilizer, pest control, biodiversity, food security and community building.) Among the dozens of outspoken advocates were Andy Schneider — aka the Chicken Whisperer — and a handful of kids, who addressed the council in support of beloved pet bantams, silkies and barred rocks and the joy of collecting breakfast from the backyard coop. In the wake of their legislative success, the loosely organized UCAN is working to develop educational programs about hen keeping, as well as a website that will connect hens and potential hen owners. For now, you can follow the group on Facebook.
Metro’s chicken legislation puts Nashville on a growing list of cities, including Ann Arbor, Mich.; Durham, N.C.; Madison, Wis.; and Portland, Ore., that are adopting hen ordinances as part of a strategy to build sustainable communities.
Not all Nashvillians endorsed the idea of farm animals in the urban services district and on lots smaller than five acres in the general services district. Opponents cited concerns such as predators, noise, smell and lower property values, with particularly strong objections coming from neighborhoods in Southeastern Davidson County. Eight councilmembers opted out of the legislation. So if you live in Antioch, Hermitage or Bellevue, the law might still prohibit you from raising backyard chickens — but at least you could still write one heck of a song about it.
As of publication, a permitting process was not yet in place for backyard hens. Aspiring hen owners can call the Environmental Health Division of Metro Health, 615-340-5653, to add their names to a list to be notified when the paperwork is ready.
“I dreamt my whole life about being a mother,” says Heidi Jellison. “I never dreamt about a big wedding, honestly never even dreamt about the husband part.” Jellison, a 35-year-old concert harpist and harp teacher, laughs at this last bit, but then her face settles into a quiet solemnity.
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