“It breaks my heart that these people are begging for such a small thing. They just want to provide for their families. I’m taken aback by this whole thing — that we’re having to stand here and beg and plead over it.” Ruth Fant, Catoosa County resident
During a planning and zoning meeting that lasted more than two hours and drew a crowd of about 100 people, 34 Catoosa County residents took the podium to share concerns about a few hot issues. The primary issue was the backyard “chicken war” that’s been going on since March last year: the debate over who should be allowed to own chickens, how many, and other related concerns.
But there were other issues, too, during the Jan. 24 meeting. One was county codes that regulate where in a yard people can plant a vegetable garden. Another had to do with how long someone can stay at a commercial campground. One more had to do with people owning personal or hobby sawmills.
Most residents concentrated comments on chicken ownership. Many of the residents who spoke have done extensive research on chicken ownership as it relates to county and city codes and have met with various officials in Catoosa County, including a county attorney, planning and zoning commissioners and county commissioners. Many have also spoken at both planning and zoning and county Board of Commissioners meetings.
Much of the chicken problem, suggested the commissioners at the Jan. 24 meeting, might be solved by changing simple things, like zoning codes and small details within zones. An R-1 zone indicates an area where only single-unit dwellings are permitted. It includes many subdivisions. Zoning has been denying R-1 residents permission to own chickens.
A-1 means light agricultural area where zoning is more amenable to chicken ownership.
R-1 residents also face other restrictions. Vegetable gardens are relegated to back yards, regardless of where the sun falls.
Opening the comment segment of the meeting was Kristy Ware, whose husband Nick and daughter Katie have also been involved in the debate.
Ware told the board that the meeting was the first time many residents had seen the already printed proposals the board was planning to present to the Board of Commissioners. People need time to read and think about the proposals, she said.
One proposal was to add “poultry” under the “livestock” designation, something all the chicken supporters strongly object to. Ware argued that it would be best to stick to standard definitions, keeping poultry separate and listed as a “domesticated animal,” and discussing how a poultry allowance for R-1 would help people provide for themselves.
The next speaker, Donna Evans, pointed to a painting on the meeting room wall and read the words on it — the preamble to the Georgia constitution: “To perpetuate the principles of free government, insure justice to all, preserve peace, promote the interest and happiness of the citizen and of the family, and transmit to posterity the enjoyment of liberty, we the people of Georgia, relying upon the protection and guidance of Almighty God, do ordain and establish this Constitution.”
Evans spoke briefly about chickens but was more concerned about personal sawmills. Her husband, she said, owns a $2,500 hobby sawmill that he uses to make items for himself and as gifts. He was informed by zoning last year that his sawmill was illegal without a permit and a business license.
Evans said the 10-horsepower, non-hydraulic sawmill is no more powerful than a riding mower and that it took her husband five hours to saw up a single log.
Many of the speakers talked about freedom and government over-reach.
If the zoning board was not going to let people provide for their families, asked Tonya Rogers, would they (the board) provide for them? “Please leave the citizens alone and let them have their property rights.” She closed by playing a song containing the lyrics “Don’t tread on me” on her cell phone.
Brittany Mulé, who was cited last year for having several chickens, which she said were registered support animals for her children, appeared before the board at the Jan. 24 meeting and said she had gone door-to-door in her subdivision with a petition supporting backyard chickens. She said only one person of the 200 she canvassed declined to sign and three or four others could not sign for fear of losing their jobs.
A gentleman addressed the audience, asking who was present to support backyard chicken ownership. Only one person raised a hand to indicate opposition to them in residential settings. “Seems like not representation, like you’re not listening,” the gentleman told the board.
One man suggested abolishing restrictions on chickens altogether. Freedom may seem a little extreme, he said, when people are accustomed to so many restrictions.
Katie Ware asked board members if they were familiar with “The Hunger Games,” a dystopian story about a crumbled country in which a ruling class forced people to turn on one another in staged killing games. “We’re living in a time,” she said, “when rich people can play dress-up while the lower class people are worrying about how much eggs will cost and if the government will allow us to own our very own poultry and vegetables.”
Robert Nolen, who grew up in Catoosa County, then went on to live in Atlanta and Los Angeles and Denver counties, said he was shocked to return home and find that the metropolitan areas he’d been living in had far fewer restrictions on backyard chickens than his rural home county.
In LA, Nolen said, people were actually encouraged to keep chickens. He said the county conducted chicken-keeping workshops and chickens could be adopted from the local animal shelter. Denver, he said, provides people with resources on how to care for food-producing animals. “Are you willing to be responsible,” he asked the board, “for regulations that would cause Catoosa County to be a more restricted place than Los Angeles, California?”
One gentleman pointed out that chickens eat a lot of mosquitoes and are more environmentally friendly than pesticides.
A number of people questioned proposed rules about the size chicken coops could be and the number of chickens allowed: Why a coop not high enough for a grown man to stand in and why an extra half-acre per chicken after the first three when the chickens would all be restricted to a coop?
Barbara Wilkey, who has been involved in the issue from the start, told board members she felt they didn’t care about the people and that there were many more people who would speak out if they weren’t afraid of repercussions. In times past, she said, the government encouraged people to have chickens and gardens, but now the push is to rely on big government and big agriculture. Having chickens, she said, brings neighbors together. She said her neighbors bring her table scraps to feed to her chickens and to get eggs. She said her neighbors also help take care of her chickens when she’s out of town.
Another theme that came up many times was the pointlessness of having three chickens, the proposed limit. Three chickens, numerous speakers pointed out, would not provide eggs for one person, much less a family of five or six.
Yet another repeated theme was all the other cities and counties around the country that have far fewer restrictions on chickens than Catoosa is proposing.
One woman pointed out that chickens without a rooster is unsustainable since a person cannot “grow” their own chickens if one or more dies. She also wanted to know where all the proposed money for permits would go. “This feels a lot like taxation without representation,” she said. “If it goes through, it’s going to be about as popular as the 30% property tax increase.”
A couple of people mentioned that young people in 4-H and FAA programs needed to be able to raise animals for competitions.
One man approached the podium and asked if he could speak without giving his name. He was told he could not. He chose not to speak.
A woman said she felt the zoning board was trying to push people aside, dismiss their complaints as trivial and placate them with a weak proposal. “We’re not going to be pushed aside,” she said.
Ruth Fant said the code that County Attorney Chris Harris submitted to the zoning board as an example of what Catoosa might use — code that had been copied largely from Oconee County — had been mostly rescinded by Oconee before Harris copied it.
Later in the meeting, Adrienne Kittle showed the copy from Oconee County with the parts canceled marked out in red.
Fant asked how much the county had spent thus far on the chicken issue. “It shouldn’t have spent anything,” she said.
“This isn’t just about chickens,” Fant said. “It’s about our freedom. This is all very Orwellian.”
“(C)ultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens,” one woman shared in a quote from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, “they are the most virtuous and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.”
“It breaks my heart,” the lady said, “that these people are begging for such a small thing. They just want to provide for their families. I’m taken aback by this whole thing — that we’re having to stand here and beg and plead over it.”
Another lady talked about Georgia schools adding to curriculum education about where food comes from. “We don’t want kids to forget how to grow food but we don’t want them to grow it at home.”
Jim Coles shared that he has a farm and can have as many chickens as he wants, so the chicken issue doesn’t directly affect him, but he wants to keep the area rural, which isn’t a given. He said he gets letters every week from people wanting to buy his farm.
A couple of people pointed out that more regulations mean more people are needed to enforce them. Another option, said one man, is to have the sheriff’s department chasing down chicken offenders.
When Candy Hullender took the podium, she turned to look at the audience. “I just want to look around at these faces,” Hullender said. “These people are heroes to Catoosa County.”
“What Catoosa County needs right now more than anything,” Hullender said, “is a hero commission that will make a recommendation to our county to dismiss this whole matter. It could be done that easily.”
Chris Davis took a humorous approach to the issue. Every time government passes a law or ordinance, it expands and some freedom is lost, he said. So what will expand this time? Chicken cops? A poultry SWAT team? People being busted for unauthorized laying of eggs? Videos of coop raids?
“I’m being facetious,” Davis said, “but also serious. Are we citizens or serfs? If I’m a citizen, I have rights. If I’m a serf, I have no rights. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote (about the king in England), ‘He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.’”
One person spoke out against chickens in residential areas. He said he wants chickens himself and is going to try to get his property rezoned from R-1 to A-1. But he thinks people having chickens in residential areas will cause neighbors to be upset about the smell and will bring down property values.
The gentleman suggested people who want chickens but are not zoned for them could board them at farms or could grow high-protein foods in gardens.
Nick Ware spoke of the importance of self-sufficiency, how the vision statement in the Catoosa County Comprehensive Plan speaks of it, gardening and keeping chickens demonstrate it and history teaches it.
Ware read from the vision statement in the Comprehensive Plan: “Catoosa County is a self-sufficient community that respects its rural character, agricultural traditions, and small-town charm…”
The UDC (Unified Development Code), said Ware, is supposed to follow the Comprehensive Plan, in vision and in practice.
Ware said that the comments of the person before him about chickens devaluing property were not based on knowledge. Backyard chicken coops, he said, are small structures that can easily be moved or torn down. He said the same is true of gardens.
Ware went on to discuss what the UDC says about nuisance complaints. A nuisance, he said, is not confined to something that is illegal. It can be something legal that “causes hurt, inconvenience, or damage to another.”
“At the same time,” Ware quoted the UDC, “just because an action is annoying does not mean it rises to the level of a nuisance that is subject to a legal remedy. The inconvenience complained of shall not be fanciful, or such as would affect only one of fastidious taste, but it shall be such as would affect an ordinary, reasonable man.”
Common sense, said Ware, is the key to applying the law properly. He ended by quoting founding father James Madison, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
The last speaker at the meeting was Adrienne Kittle, who had drafted language to improve the chicken issue. She pointed out again that the Oconee code provisions proposed by Harris had become obsolete since Oconee County officials had rejected it.
John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, Kittle began, “Cities may be rebuilt. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever.”
“What good reason do you have,” Kittle asked the board, “for placing restrictions on individuals’ private property that do not cause harm to the environment and is not a nuisance? What reasons for any of these restrictions: the chickens, the gardens, the green houses, the sawmill? Why?”
“The city of Atlanta,” Kittle said, “allows 25 chickens. I asked for 24 chickens and roosters. I was told my proposal was not palatable. Why? I did an open records request and could not find anywhere that chickens were a legitimate nuisance.”
Officials speak out
During the final part of the meeting, planning and zoning commission members shared thoughts. Chairman Jerry Hawthorne said the commission’s job was to be fair to all homeowners, not just a few and that the board took that job very seriously. Jeff Fava said he supported changing the minimum acreage for zone A-1 from three acres to one acre and for zone R/A from two acres to one, which would make it easier for people to get their properties rezoned to agricultural.
The rest of the board members, Wanda Garrett, Jerry Hawthorn, Matt Farmer and Richard Johnson, were in agreement and the recommendation passed unanimously.
Farmer commented that he would not like chickens next door to him or even in his neighborhood, but he lives in a subdivision, he said.
The planning and zoning board voted to propose to the Catoosa County Board of Commissioners the following changes:
Section 1.08.02 of the Catoosa County Unified Development Code shall be amended to include definition of “Livestock” as follows:
Livestock. Any animal, including, but not limited to, cattle (both dairy and beef cattle), elk, reindeer, bison, horses, deer, sheep, goats, mules, donkeys, swine, poultry (including the Gallus domesticus chicken and other egg-producing poultry), llamas, alpacas, and any other domesticated animal ordinarily raised or used on farms.
Section 1.08.02 of the Catoosa County Unified Development Code shall be amended to include definition of “Hobby Sawmill” as follows:
Hobby Sawmill. A Hobby Sawmill shall mean a non-commercial workshop operated by an individual or family engaged in sawing dimensional lumber, boards, beams, timbers, poles, ties, shingles, shakes, siding, and other wood products from trees and lumber. Hobby Sawmills shall not be used for commercial activity and any product milled at a Hobby Sawmill shall not be offered for sale to consumers or any other customer. Hobby Sawmills shall not include wood yards.
Table 2-3 Land Use Table shall be amended as follows:
Hobby sawmills (for non-commercial purposes only) shall be “P” (Permissible) in A-1 and R-A districts.
Section 2.04.02 Additional Standards of the Catoosa County Unified Development Code shall be supplemented and amended as follows:
2.04.02 Additional Standards
G) For Campground/RV Parks provided above in the Table 2-3 Land Use Table, no recreational vehicle, tent, tent trailer, or travel trailer shall be used as a permanent place of abode or dwelling for indefinite periods of time. Human occupancy of a recreational vehicle in a park for more than 90 days in any 12-month period shall be prohibited. Placement of a recreational vehicle on a foundation or any action toward removal of wheels of a recreational vehicle, except for temporary purposes of repair, is hereby prohibited. Campgrounds shall meet all Department of Public Health standards and guidelines.
The planning and zoning board chose to scrap the Oconee-based chicken ordinance.