Urban Hen Coalition Continues Fight to Legalize City Chickens

Since forming about a year ago and setting its sights on making hen ownership legal within city limits, Knoxville's Urban Hen Coalition has made several strides towards altering the current statute. This week, the UHC will learn whether it has persuaded the Knoxville Neighborhood Advisory Council to support the cause with a recommendation to the mayor, and it is initiating more measures to convince skeptical neighbors beginning May 7. But a week or even a month won't conclude this complicated and bureaucratic process—and the eventual outcome is not a safe bet either way.

The statute the UHC is tilting against makes it unlawful "for any person to keep, harbor or confine any animal of the swine species or type or poultry in any building, structure, shed, corral, pen or enclosure within the corporate limits of the city"—with a few exceptions, like livestock shows.

The group would like Knoxville's city dwellers to be able to keep hens as part of a local movement to get closer to food production. The UHC also promotes the benefits of lower food costs and fresher, healthier local fare. A few hens could keep the average family in fresh eggs with maybe a few left over to sell—hens lay about one egg per day in summer, slowing in the colder months and when they're two or three years of age. (Roosters, though, are not part of the deal, both because they tend to crow at dawn, and because hens don't need them to be able to lay unfertilized eggs.)

This past July, the hen-ownership advocates led by Chad Hellwinckel of Parkridge were working with the Animal Control Board to come up with an ordinance that would hold water if it ever made it to City Council for a vote. That they've done: "When we originally approached the ACB, we had about a one-paragraph addition to the animal ordinance," says Hellwinckel, whose day job is as a research assistant professor at the University of Tennessee's Agricultural Policy Analysis Center. "In order to make it more in line with what other cities have done, it ended up being three pages. A lot of it is common sense, but the Animal Control Board wanted to make sure this would be enforceable if it got passed."

Two things spelled out in the suggested update: The hens would be strictly for egg production, not slaughter, and only six hens would be allowed on a normal city lot of 5,000 square feet. "You could have up to 12 depending on the lot size, adding one for every 1,000 feet above 5,000 square feet, to a maximum of 12," Hellwinckel says. "Even if you had three acres, still only 12."

The city Law Department did help draft the ordinance, but "without any prejudice"—its involvement did not imply the city was in favor of hens within its limits, only that the ordinance could hold up to legal challenges and be enforceable by the city police department if it were ever brought before City Council.

And that's the question that's still wide open. Will the hen bill ever reach Council? Before that could happen, the chief of police and the mayor, in turn, would need to give the proposal the thumbs up. There's also an outside chance that a single City Council member will get interested and present the proposal directly. An added layer: If the ordinance passes City Council—and that's a big if—the Metropolitan Planning Commission would also have to change zoning laws to permit hen ownership.

So far, the ordinance approved by the Animal Control Board has stalled out at Police Chief Sterling Owen's desk. But he hasn't said no. Instead, he wrote the UHC a letter urging it to shore up some more neighborhood support. "While it is clear you and your Coalition support this Ordinance, I have been advised that there is opposition to the Ordinance within your own neighborhood," Owen wrote. "Some of your neighbors' concerns are: odor, sanitation issues, becoming an attractive target of animals, noise, irresponsible hen owners, and the difficulty and responsibility of enforcement... I believe that obtaining consensus within the neighborhood would be a productive first-step in successfully lobbying for the Ordinance."

The UHC took the advice to heart and has scheduled what it hopes will be a persuasive and myth-busting activity for Knoxville neighborhood stakeholders: a free screening of the 2008 movie Mad City Chickens at Remedy Coffee House in the Old City on May 7. The food cooperative Three Rivers Market is underwriting the $200 fee for a public showing of the "sometimes serious, sometimes whimsical look at the people who keep urban hens in their backyards" in Madison, Wis., which passed a law allowing single-family homes the right to raise poultry in the backyard in 2004.

Another ripple in the debate—and possible impediment to the ordinance passing—involves the Knoxville Neighborhood Advisory Council, which provides advice and feedback to the city administration on issues affecting neighborhoods. At UHC's request, the KNAC heard remarks from the brood of hen lovers at its March 10 meeting, which UHC hoped would result in a letter of support for the cause to the mayor. Instead, time ran out at the meeting and when the KNAC reconvened for a regularly scheduled meeting on April 14, the 10 of 13 members who were present split on the ordinance. "The 5-5 vote probably reflects the mixed feelings of neighborhoods and citizens about this proposal," says Neighborhood Coordinator David D. Massey, who is careful to note that he is the coordinator for the group and has no voice in the recommendation process.

Massey will encapsulate the views expressed and prepare a written recommendation for the mayor that will be made public by week's end. "But the KNAC has only one role in this process, making recommendations—the administration will decide up or down," he says. "Especially since our members were evenly split, this isn't a final word one way or another and a lot of other groups will have recommendations, too."

KNAC members were agreed on one thing, though. "Many of our members have been very complimentary of the UHC," Massey says. "They've made a good-faith effort to identify and address concerns. They've received lots of compliments for the methodical and disciplined way they've gone about this."