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Tacoma: Council adopts new domestic fowl rules for urban coops

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on Aug. 28, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
August 28, 2012 11:00 pm

It didn’t come over easy, but a measure that will make it simpler to legally raise backyard chickens and other domestic fowl in Tacoma won City Council approval Tuesday.

Urban chicken

After a tortured debate that featured two failed amendments and plenty of squawking over just how far urban poultry coops and cages should be kept from neighboring properties, the council voted 8 to 1 to support the originally proposed Poultry and Pigeons Code Amendment.

As approved, the measure changes the city’s domestic fowl ordinance by reducing an onerous 50-foot setback for operating a poultry coop to 12 feet.

It also for the first time sets limits on the number of birds allowed per parcel: generally 6 adult birds, but up to 10 if neighbors give written consent.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland stressed the new rules couldn’t please everybody and likely would require neighborly compromise.

“Whatever number we land on,” Strickland said during the height of Tuesday’s debate, “if you have poultry, please be respectful of your neighbors.”

The measure also redefines code violations as civil infractions – not criminal ones, as now defined – and institutes penalties for them of $250 each. New standards for poultry coops and cages also would be added to city code.

City code enforcement officers also become responsible for dealing with domestic fowl complaints, which are now handled by the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.

During Tuesday’s debate, a half-dozen Tacoma residents took turns telling personal tales to emphasize their stances for or against the new poultry code.

Ken Prosser, a schoolteacher and North End resident, told members that a coop once filled with as many as 18 chickens operated by his neighbors wreaked havoc on his home. The chickens stank, were noisy and drew swarms of flies, he said.

“The smell was so bad, we couldn’t go into our backyard,” Prosser said.

It wasn’t until he complained and his neighbors moved the coop about 45 feet away that things got better, Prosser said. He implored the council to keep the 50-foot setback.

“You guys should try to live next to someone with chickens for three months,” Prosser said. “…That rule is there for a reason.”

But Greg McLawsen, a lawyer, Proctor resident and owner of four chickens, countered that his property isn’t big enough to meet the city’s 50-foot setback.

“This is really a property rights issue,” McLawsen said. “If we were talking about other pets – dogs or cats – it would really strike closer to a lot more of us.”

The council entertained amendments from Councilmen David Boe and Marty Campbell that offered alternative setbacks: Boe wanted a 24-foot coop buffer, while Campbell offered one that would range as wide as 50-feet to as narrow as 12-feet, depending on consent from neighbors.

In the end, the council went with the 12-foot buffer recommended by a council committee and the Sustainable Tacoma Commission. Boe cast the lone vote against the measure.

Urban poultry farming in Tacoma and other cities has gained popularity in recent years, as city-dwellers have looked for inexpensive sources for organic eggs and meat. Poultry are also efficient composters, devouring table scraps that normally must be picked up and hauled away.

Since 2005, the Health Department has fielded 80 complaints about chickens, geese, quail, ducks and other poultry in Tacoma — a relatively low number, officials say.

Noise, odor and other coop-related problems that may crop up under the new rules can still be dealt with under the city’s nuisance code, city officials said. Affected neighbors simply need to complain.

Councilman Joe Lonergan noted that though the new rules had been vigorously vetted and compromised, they’re still a work in progress.

“I would just encourage everyone to work with your neighbors and talk,” he said.

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