After months of debate and three contentious public hearings, the Durham City Council voted Feb. 16 to allow backyard chickens. The unexpectedly unanimous decision delighted many in attendance, prompting more than 50 supporters to burst into applause as City Hall's electronic scoreboard lit up with green bars, indicating 7 "yes" votes.
"We had been making all our phone calls, and e-mails, trying to find out where they stood, for months," said supporter Kavanah Ramsier. "It was a big surprise."
Prior to the vote, Ramsier said, she had no idea how the decision would go, noting that Councilman Howard Clement had told her he was undecided as late as that morning.
The vote was a victory for urban chicken enthusiasts, who organized around the issue and named their group the Durham HENS, for Healthy Eggs in Neighborhoods Soon.
After reciting a litany of egg-related metaphors ("This ordinance has been scrambled. ... Tonight, hopefully it will be served on a platter, sunny-side-up"), Councilman Eugene Brown announced that he had run out of logical reasons to oppose the change, which will take the form of an amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance.
"When restrictions are in place, which they are, when almost every city in the state allows hens, which they do, I hope council will take the position of enhancing citizens' freedoms, and not denying it," said Brown.
Brown said after the vote that concerns about noise, odor, disease, blood-letting rituals and vandalism—many of them based on ethnic stereotypes and childhood memories about roosters—had been debunked. The amendment will not allow roosters, whose noisy crowing was the source of many opponents' concerns. Brown and other members of the council whose support had remained uncertain were also assured that common-sense health procedures such as washing one's hands after handling chickens and eggs greatly reduces the risk of contracting salmonella, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Handling uncooked eggs sold in supermarkets carries a similar risk.
Supporter Frank Hyman, a former councilman, speculated that the presence of young supporters—and Durham civil rights legend Ann Atwater, seated in the front row—made a convincing argument.
Seated behind Atwater was a row of teenagers who work at Durham Inner-City Gardeners (DIG), a youth-driven urban farming initiative of Durham SEEDS, the nonprofit city garden. Rashida Smith, 15, spoke matter-of-factly about the benefits of learning to raise independent food sources.
"I have never kept chickens, and don't know what it would be like, but in my opinion I think chickens in Durham will be a good opportunity to learn and see what happens," she said.
She added that code-enforced procedures such as properly composting chicken manure are "just like cleaning your room and taking out the trash. You've just got to do it."
Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden, who brought Smith back to the podium to ask her how she would feel if the ordinance didn't pass, said she was "almost going to vote against it, but then I heard the children."
The youth support prompted scorn and a sideshow of drama from Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People chairwoman Lavonia Allison, however. Allison, a powerful political figure, belittled a group of urban teenagers who spoke in support of the measure, at times pointing her finger at supporters in the gallery and saying, "Shame on you."
Before Smith addressed the council, Allison spoke dismissively of the presence of inner-city youths in favor of the amendment—whose presence seemed to undercut her arguments at earlier meetings that supporters did not speak for urban neighborhoods.
"I see we have a more mixed group of young folk here tonight," Allison said. "They've been asked to come speak for some other folks, who don't have 50-foot lots."
Afterward, Smith said she wasn't worried about the icy reception, and that she had so much fun participating that she would consider speaking at future council meetings.
"Everyone has their own opinions. People can say what they want," she said.
Destiney Robinson, 16, chimed in: "I just wanted to get up and say [to Allison]: 'We're teenagers. We're still learning. We're participating in the discussion. That should be all that matters.'"
Ramsier, the DIG coordinator for SEEDS and a member of Durham HENS, said the chicken debate provided a "highly educational event" that could lead to participation in other issues.
"I'm sure they probably learned more than in some of their classes on local government," she said. "We're all about experiential learning."
Mayor Bill Bell—who donned a Carolina blue UNC sweatshirt over his suit as penance for losing a basketball bet with Chapel Hill's Mayor Kevin Foy—said his vote came down to added protections for adjacent landowners, who will be given mandatory 30-day notice, and the opportunity to appeal the chicken permits.
Larry Burk, a member of Durham HENS, told the council that the ordinance may provide economic benefits by allowing residents to raise their own food sources. Members of HENS have also agreed to donate extra eggs to the Durham Rescue Mission. If Durham is better able to ride out the recession due to locally produced eggs, Burk said before the vote, he would "ask Mayor Bell to wear a T-shirt."
"[That joke] may have cost you a vote," Councilman Farad Ali quipped.
Much to the delight of dozens of people wearing pale brown HENS T-shirts, it didn't.
Durham's new ordinance allowing backyard hens in city limits takes effect immediately, according to City Manager Tom Bonfield. Raleigh and Carrboro already permit them. Chapel Hill's Town Council is scheduled to vote on the issue Monday, Feb. 23.