How To Get Started Changing Your City's Chicken Laws
Where do you even start when you want to change your city's chicken laws?
1. Find out exactly what your laws are. This is crucial; don't simply assume that because someone has told you that chickens aren't allowed that this is true. There are several ways to get started on this. The easiest is simply to call your city's offices and ask for the person in charge of code enforcement in your town and ask that person about ordinances and codes applying to chicken-keeping. (Don't just ask whoever answers the phone at your goverment offices -- that person doesn't know the law, but he or she should know who the code enforcer is.) If you'd rather try to do it more quietly, just ask if your city's ordinances are online and get the URL.
If you want to do it even more quietly, you can search for your city's ordinances online yourself. The first place to check is your town's website. Search on Google for your town and state -- for instance, "Montgomery Ohio" pulls up my town's website. Poke around your town's website to see if they provide an easy-to-find link to your ordinances -- the link might be Ordinances, or Code Enforcement, or Zoning, or something similar. You can also search these sites for your town's ordinances:
Once you find your city's ordinances online, you'll need to search the on several terms: animals, poultry, chickens, livestock, fowl, pets, structures, enclosures, and accessory uses/usages. That's because there may be several laws or zoning codes that apply, and they may be in several different places. You need to find EVERY section that might apply. Look for a section on definitions and see if chickens, fowl, or poultry are included in the definition of livestock, farm animals, or pets.
Make or ask for a copy of every section of the code that pertains. At this point, you may have found that chickens are legal after all, or that you only have to make a few changes in your setup to comply. Hooray! But if not, don't give up. Laws can be changed.
2. Organize. Find some like-minded people to help if you can, even just a few. Try posting to BYC at Local Chicken Laws & Ordinances (and how to change them) or Where am I? Where are you! (you can find your state's thread here) and asking if there's anyone who lives nearby you, or if anyone KNOWS anyone who lives nearby you. Is there anyone in your area offering chicken-keeping classes? Call and ask if they've had people from your town attend, and ask them if they've heard of any local chicken-keeping groups. Are there any bloggers in your town covering local-foods or sustainable-living issues? Ask them to post about it, providing your email for people who are interested in helping to contact you. Start a Facebook page and invite everyone you know who lives in your town. Post a notice at the local feed store.
3. Put together your research. Here is a document we used to convince our city council to legalize the keeping of chickens. Please feel free to download it, edit it to reflect your own town, and use it any way you like. Probably the most important thing for you to update is the section on ordinances in other similar nearby suburbs. The key here is to look at the ordinances in other nearby areas that are SIMILAR to your town.
4. Find out what the process is for changing laws in your town. Call your government offices and ask to speak to the clerk of council, town clerk, or whoever takes the minutes at town meetings. That person can be your best friend, so take pains to keep him or her on your side. This person knows more about how to change laws in your town than probably anyone else. Generally he or she will tell you the first step is to write a letter, copying every member of your city council, asking that the ordinances and/or zoning laws be reconsidered. It doesn't have to be long or fancy -- if you aren't a letter writer, it can be a simple letter saying, "Dear X, I'd like our town to reconsider the ordinances regarding the keeping of small numbers of backyard chickens for purposes of household egg gathering. I will plan to attend the next meeting of council on (DATE.) Best Regards, (your name & address)" Or make it longer if you like -- here's a sample letter; feel free to edit it to reflect your town and use it. Then the next step is usually to speak to council at one of their regular meetings. Ask the clerk of council what the procedure for this is. Most city councils require you to sign in with your name and address and possibly to hand in a card indicating you'd like to speak. Get a copy of the agenda -- it may be on the city's website, or the clerk of council can give you one, or you can pick one up on your way in to the meeting.
5. Attend the next meeting of your city council. Then once you've sent your letter -- mail it at least ten days in advance of the council meeting you plan to attend -- show up for the meeting. Ask the clerk of council ahead of time about the procedure for speaking at the meeting. Most city councils require you to sign in with your name and address and possibly to hand in a card indicating you'd like to speak. Get a copy of the agenda -- it may be on the city's website, or you can pick one up on your way into the meeting. Sign in if it's required, and hand in a card indicating you'd like to speak if that's required. Look over the agenda. Chicken-keeping probably won't be on it at this point, but if it is, that point in the agenda is usually when you'd speak, generally after the council has discussed it themselves. If there's no mention of considering chicken-keeping, you'll speak during the section called something like "Comments from Residents and Visitors." Then just tell them why you're there and why you'd like the town to consider changing the laws to allow chickens. Mention that you're putting together research on what other nearby towns have done.
Do NOT take an adversarial stance with your city council. Use "We" instead of "You" or "They" whenever you speak to or about them. "We should reconsider this," rather than "You should" or "They should." Your government is YOU. These folks represent you and other residents of your town/township/county. You and other residents elected them, and they're very aware of it. In all likelihood, they all are well-intentioned people doing their level best to represent their constituents to the best of their ability. Treat them as if they're on your side, keep your sense of humor, and they likely will, too. If they feel besieged, they'll likely dig their heels in. Once people have chosen a 'side' it's hard to switch teams, so don't let it become two opposing sides. If you approach this with professionalism, a sense of humor and a 'we're all in this together trying to find a solution that will work for everyone' attitude, they likely will too.
6. Pay attention to their questions of you and any discussion with each other. These are key issues. Take notes, and make sure you update your research to address these questions and concerns. You may need to add a section in the document, or just edit a section.
7. Provide your research. After this first meeting, give your research any updates it needs to address any of their questions and concerns, then give it to the clerk of council. Ask if he/she needs one copy (and will make copies for each council member) or needs a copy for each.
8. Gather support without creating opposition. Ask friends and supporters to attend city council meetings -- they don't have to talk if they don't want to. Just being there demonstrates support of your request. Make sure they understand that a key issue is keeping council from feeling besieged; you don't want anyone there acting hotheaded. Just having people at the meetings acting respectfully will be a new experience for a lot of town councils. If supporters offer to come from outside your town, that's still helpful, especially if they can talk about how their own town has had no problems with chickens.
I don't recommend going to the press to gather support, as that can backfire badly if it creates an organized opposition. Using the media is tricky. On one hand, they can be very helpful in getting the word out to supporters. On the other, remember that the media is looking for a juicy fight with namecalling, and you have no control over how they'll slant their story. If they approach you for a quote, be very sure your quote is non-adversarial. Saying things like, "This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard" or "Some people just want to control what other people do" will not help you maintain a non-adversarial relationship with your city officials. You need them on your side. You also need to get members of the community who might be leery of chickens on your side, or at least to remain neutral. An organized opposition is much more difficult to overcome than one that hasn't been galvanized to action. You don't want to say anything to the media that will make readers of a story think, "These people are nuts! I'm going to attend the next city council meeting!" When the article comes out, ask your supporters to send Letters to the Editor in response to the article. Watch for any negative reactions on the opinions page.
9. Keep attending council meetings. If the issue gets referred to another board or commission, such as a Planning Commission, start attending those meetings, too, and take the same steps with that group. Make sure at least one member of your group is in attendance at every meeting where the issue is on the agenda, and always sign up to speak. If a question or concern is raised, be sure to address it when it's your turn to speak. If the issue gets tabled, ask what the next step is.
...more to come (this page a work in progress -- last update 12/19/10)