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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Of blood and chickens

Posted by on Tue, Feb 3, 2009 at 5:56 PM

click to enlarge Photo by DL Anderson
  • Photo by DL Anderson

City Council was abuzz Monday night, as Mayor Bill Bell told Durhamites to "prepare for the worst" in his annual State of the City address (read the Indy write-up here), and a standing-room-only crowd stuck around to lend their support for a code amendment that would allow backyard chickens within city limits.

After Bell's dire forecast for the city--including a projected shortfall of "between $24 and $40 million" in the fiscal year 2009-10--council members returned to the issue of whether to allow city dwellers, with a permit, to house female chickens (hens) in backyard coops for the purpose of producing eggs and meat (and, also, companionship). It would seem a small issue, compared to making up $40 million, but the council, yet again, delayed a vote on the measure. Previously, a vote was delayed at a Jan. 5 meeting. Bell admitted to not having read the most recent language in the proposed amendment, which the Council received Monday from Planning Director Steve Medlin.

In his report, Medlin recommended the Council approve the urban-chickens amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance, citing a "growing interest in local, non-industrial food supplies and concern about rising food prices." In a 10-4 vote, the Durham Planning Commission--a citizen-led advisory panel--also recommended adopting the ordinance. Bell said his initial concerns about health and safety had been "vetted," but he said he was holding onto the issue of neighbors' complaints. However, Medlin said that the current amendment would allow adjacent property owners to initiate a complaint process that would account for unique health concerns, and the distance and appearance of the offending coop.

Bell announced at the beginning of the meeting that the vote would be delayed, but that didn't stop 17 people--including Raleigh Councilor Rodger Koopman--from speaking in favor of chickens as a resourceful, and environmentally friendly, food source.

Koopman--who owns three hens of his own--said he had yet to hear "a single complaint" about chickens in his time at City Council; his support drew a resounding applause from the gallery, prompting Bell to ask attendees to hold their applause until the end.

Kavanah Ramsier, a coordinator for SEEDS, a non-profit community garden in Durham, said that raising hens "encourages people to respect our environment by connecting us to our food sources," and pointed to the additional health and environmental benefits of eggs raised without pesticides, and not flown in from across the globe.

Various other presenters noted that most other cities in North Carolina, and many in the U.S.--including New York City--permit urban chickens, with no known health, quality-of-life, or property-value setbacks.

But Lavonia Allison, Durham Committe on the Affairs of Black People Chairwoman, argued that the mere fact that others cities allow chickens, means Durham shouldn't.

"I really wish we understood that Durham is very, very unique," she said, adding that Durham has "more freedoms," and thus should ban urban chickens.

After scolding the gallery for "taking up this amount of time" supporting the amendment, she exited the podium muttering the words, "ridiculous" and "it's a shame" to anyone within earshot.

Triangle Citizens Rebuilding Communities director Victoria Peterson--along with Allison, a mainstay at Durham City Council and County Commissioner meetings--also spoke out against the amendment, saying that "we have a culture" in Durham that "celebrates," "sacrifices" and "bleeds" chickens, ostensibly a reference to religious rituals in Latin America.

"We can't just change the laws so that a few of you can have your chickens," she said to the crowd, before telling the story of Oswald, a "mean" rooster who pecked at the legs of children during her childhood.

The proposed ordinance would not allow roosters (male chickens) within city limits.

The council elected to take up the matter again on Feb. 16. As the gallery exited, a Boy Scout whose troop was honored by City Council earlier in the night was heard saying, "Dad. Can we get some chicken?"

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