What the CLUCK?!
The Argument for Backyard Chickens
By Jeremy Wiedle
Originally published in the Dayton City Paper
December 3, 2014
Cincinnati-based grocery giant Kroger announced in September it was poised to hit $1 billion in annual sales with its organic food brand, Simple Truth. For a corporation that reported $96.7 billion in revenue last year, that figure is nothing more than a drop in the bucket. Yet the announcement made headlines as it signaled a seismic shift in consumer behavior and dietary choices.
Marketing of organic foods has clearly played a role in the shift but so too has a growing cognizance among shoppers of the health risks associated with processed foods. “Organic” and “natural” were once words that graced food labels of high-end or more expensive grocery items but have now made their way to national brands as consumers search for healthier options.
Sarah McBride of Huber Heights is among those who look to avoid preservative-filled foods. She too belongs to the group of shoppers who are ushering in more nutritional products.
“All this packaged food, frozen food – no one has time to cook,” McBride said. “It was never really an issue, and now I feel like it’s gone too far … it’s time for a change back. People care where their food comes from.”
She and her husband raise their four children in Huber Heights and routinely look for local, organic options when feeding their family. The couple’s latest endeavor to ensure wholesome food is a backyard chicken coop – complete with six hens. While drawing up plans and buying materials, it never occurred to the couple they might be violating the city’s zoning law. Yet they were, and not long after the chicks moved in, they were on their way out.
Now McBride is leading a grassroots effort to overturn Huber Heights’ ordinance preventing chicken ownership in smaller city lots. Armed with a political action committee, hundreds of petition signatures and unwavering determination, she is working toward a public vote on the issue next May.
Hatching an idea
After visiting a local farm she frequents for fresh milk, McBride found her need for local, organic eggs could not be met. So in April she commissioned her husband, Steve, to build a chicken coop in the home’s backyard. In theory, the coop would be home to six hens that would provide eggs for the family’s breakfasts.
“I don’t even like to buy half the stuff in the grocery store. I mean, you don’t know where it came from,” McBride said. “Increasingly, everything is going to factory farmed, and, you know, some people just want to go back to the way food used to be.”
Her skepticism is warranted.
Kroger’s Simple Truth brand has made another appearance in the media recently. Outside of its financial success, the grocer settled a lawsuit in October over false advertising associated with, ironically enough, its chicken products. The packaging label on Simple Truth chicken meat claimed the animals were raised in a “humane” and “cage-free” environment. However, it was later found the poultry was raised under standard commercial farming practices.
McBride’s hens were never intended for the butcher, but Kroger’s latest actions prove her point: Shoppers don’t always know where foods originate.
Kroger is not alone in deceiving customers. Whole Foods, known for and with a reputation built upon selling organic groceries, faced a similar lawsuit in June.
Sarah and Steve saw their chicken coop as yet another way to avoid the grocery and get food directly from the source. Neither saw it at the time, but what began as a small weekend project soon became a lesson in local politics and a frustrating relationship with the city council.
Putting up a squawk
Close neighbors did not initially know of McBride’s feathered friends moving in. Those living directly next to her were unaware she even had the hens until the issue caught public attention and they were asked about it in an interview. However, one neighbor kept a watchful eye after seeing Steve constructing the coop. Within a few weeks, the McBride’s were sent a violation notice in May requiring its removal.
The City of Huber Heights permits chickens on lots larger than one acre. McBride’s lot, at 0.33 acres, falls considerably short. Her suburban neighborhood features one-story homes with about 15 feet between each – far from the rural, country setting where acre lots are found.
She was not ready to give up after the city’s notice, seeing the choice to raise her own food as a personal right that could not be infringed upon by the city. Citing farmer and author Joel Salatin, McBride argued, “How can government regulation regulate people’s food production?”
C.L.U.C.K.(ing) for change
The Public Services and Safety Committee responsible for hearing McBride’s arguments for amending the ordinance advised her at the first city council meetings she attended in May and June to begin a resident ballot initiative. A ballot initiative would allow voters in Huber Heights to decide local laws on urban chickens. In Ohio, the effort requires a petition with 1,000 community signatures and submission of the list to the regional Board of Elections 60 days before an election.
To do this, McBride formed her own political action committee (PAC), Community Led Urban Chicken Keeping, C.L.U.C.K for short, to push the issue and craft a petition.
C.L.U.C.K. consists of five official members whose main objective is to educate city council and community members on urban chicken farming. Disease, noise, animal control, smell and declining property values have been, and still are, concerns of the council committee and some community members. Attempting to quell these concerns and dispel their misconceptions, C.L.U.C.K. gathered research from other cities that permit urban chickens. In fact, their worries mimicked those of officials in cities where similar urban chicken bans were eventually overturned. However, committee members’ opinions remained unchanged even after seeing the research in June, and in July they tabled the issue for further discussion in November.
McBride said she thinks the committee made their decision to block her efforts well before she presented the research. “When someone has a concern and you bring in research showing answers and it doesn’t do anything to change their mind, it makes me think they already had their minds made up,” McBride said.
Feathers begin to fly
McBride and her PAC’s relationship with city council quickly grew sour. In one of those first meetings she attended, the Public Services and Safety Committee responsible for hearing arguments suggested using an online poll through the city’s website to gauge public opinion. Results showed 67 percent approved of allowing urban chickens while 33 percent did not.
City Manager Rob Schommer said the survey results are unreliable because “those interested in the topic are more inclined to take a survey on that subject. That’s the problem with web surveys.” He continued, “They’re not scientific … so you might not get an accurate sampling of what the populous of the community would want.”
McBride said she does not understand why the city spent time and money for the survey, only to deem it obsolete once the results were in. She said a council member raised the same question when comparing it to a similar survey the council used to justify putting a tax levy up for public vote. “[The tax levy] was a lot closer,” McBride said. “The yes’s and no’s were a lot closer than 67-33, and they still voted to put that on the ballot.”
Public Services and Safety Committee Member Tyler Starline raised the issue during the committee’s June meeting. Meeting minutes describe him as “troubled by the attempt to diminish the results of the survey when the city has trumpeted the results of the tax levy survey to its advantage and the tax levy survey had a similar sample size.” Huber Heights Assistant City Manager Scott Falkowski argued the two could not be compared, saying, “The tax levy survey was a scientific survey with random sampling.”
By tabling the issue in July, it became clear the committee had decided not to put the ordinance change on the November ballot for voting and instead would wait to see if voter reaction garnered enough support to change the law. While the committee advised McBride to begin work on her ballot initiative in late spring, she was still holding out hope that members would decide to place it on the ballot, eliminating the need for her to file a petition.
At this point, C.L.U.C.K. had not come far in crafting a petition to submit to the Board of Elections. They had no signatures and the legal process of filing a citizen initiative, they soon found out, had never been attempted in the city.
Not only would C.L.U.C.K. have to work quickly to get the petition filed, but in June McBride was informed by the city that due to restrictions within the city charter, the city attorney could not provide her with legal advice. Schommer argued the council “gave her all the information” to work on the initiative, but McBride added, “Being that I have no legal experience, writing an ordinance and figuring out the process involved several meetings with a paralegal and countless chats with the Board of Elections to figure out the process.”
In addition to the painstaking task of navigating state and city laws to craft legislation, McBride also had to fulfill her role as a working mother with four children. She said she doesn’t understand why the council could not put the issue on the November ballot in the first place. “I do not have the taxpayer resources that the city has or the legal staff,” McBride said.
C.L.U.C.K. missed the deadline to submit the petition to the Board of Elections and have the issue appear on the ballot in November. It is worth noting that McBride began seriously researching the initiative process much later than she could have. While city council was unable to change the ordinance due to continued concerns, why they did not prevent McBride from undergoing the arduous process with a simple ballot measure remains a mystery.
“Not everyone is going to want chickens or even be for it, but that’s why; why not put it up to a vote,” McBride said. “I don’t see what they have to lose.”
Schommer said the council has not treated McBride unjustly. He explained, “For this particular situation, to blame a community or organization from holding them [the McBrides] back or disallowing them from having something, we’re looking at it backwards.” Schommer continued, “The zoning rules were put in place to protect the citizens in the rest of that residential area. They could have chosen to live in a different location that is zoned agriculture.”
Which came first: the chicken or the ban?
One of McBride’s major motivators for keeping her hens was a desire to “go back to the way food used to be.” And history proves her coop, at one point, was not uncommon. Up until the 1950s, raising backyard livestock was a common practice that at one point was encouraged by the U.S. government.
World War I-era posters and advertisements called for “a chicken in every yard,” with most family homes having some sort of food production method. The U.S. Department of Agriculture went as far as to distribute pamphlets explaining the benefits of urban farming. Whether it be a garden or a herd of sheep, Americans were asked to conserve and live sustainably. It’s a far cry from the economic policies we see enacted today.
The number of Americans raising their own chicken coops dwindled after the war and the country saw an increased desire for fast, quick and easily accessible food. Longer workdays and new technology, namely the microwave, introduced time saving instant meals for the new, always-busy American family. The new suburban landscape, with its manicured green lawns and paved driveways, was no place for animals. Thus, the grocery industry grew substantially and backyard chicken coops became a want rather than a necessity.Birds of a feather
Huber Heights is not the first city to have urban chicken bans challenged. Citizens of Madison, Wisconsin formed Chicken Underground, an action committee similar to C.L.U.C.K., and overturned their city’s urban chicken ban. Madison is commonly used as an example by others looking to change chicken ownership laws because of how widely successful and popular the measure was in that city.
Arguments against chicken farming in cities where bans were overturned included the same misconceptions by government officials and neighbors that have been voiced in Huber Heights. A number of websites similar to C.L.U.C.K.’s are devoted to discrediting worries of noise and disease. The Centers for Disease Control has dedicated a page on its website to the growing practice. It explains that, if proper sanitation is practiced, keeping backyard poultry presents little risk, including of neighborhood disturbance.
Counting their chickens
C.L.U.C.K. may have failed to get an immediate decision out of the city council and an appearance on last month’s ballot, but they are not giving up just yet. In fact, they are closer than they have ever been to getting a decision out of voters. The group has nearly 600 signatures on their petition, 400 away from submitting the paperwork, inching one step closer to victory.
McBride said she doesn’t expect to see chickens in every backyard by this time next year but hopes the change in city code will allow her to continue raising chickens. She added, “It’s not like it’s going to spread, but I think it’s more of an extension of organic gardening, and I mean, obviously, people are growing their own food.”
To learn more about C.L.U.C.K, please visit facebook.com/bycinhuber.