The grassroots movement for backyard chickens in urban areas has been gaining ground nationally, and now Visalia may be next to say yes.
The City Council will hold a public hearing June 1 about a proposal to allow up to four chickens per household in this city of 130,000.
Having chickens in a backyard would seem natural in the central San Joaquin Valley, one of the biggest agricultural regions in the nation. Some Valley cities allow the birds, including Exeter, Woodlake, Lindsay, Farmersville and Madera, but most cities, including Fresno, Clovis, Selma, Reedley, Tulare, Hanford and Lemoore prohibit them outright or have limited exceptions.
Proponents say raising chickens brings out their inner farmer and results in an endless egg supply. And, backers say chickens make great pets.
But opponents raise issues of odor, noise, escaped birds, and the possibility of disease.
It’s not a slam dunk that the Visalia City Council will vote yes on a proposed ordinance.
Two council members earlier this year voted against having an ordinance brought for consideration, and last month the Visalia Planning Commission recommended that the council reject the proposed ordinance as written.
“This ordinance isn’t ready for prime time,” said Planning Commissioner Roland Soltesz, citing the lack of a requirement for chicken coops.
But the pressure for chickens appears to be on the upswing. Well-organized proponents easily outnumber opponents at public hearings.
“Chickens can peacefully co-exist in residential areas,” said Christine Wood of Visalia, a school aide and mother who circulated a petition asking the city to allow chickens. “Eggs are expensive. It’s nice to know where they came from.”
Visalia’s proposed ordinance would ban roosters, require that chickens be kept in the backyard and that coops be 15 feet from neighbors’ homes.
Kent Welsh of Visalia said he used to work in agriculture and has raised chickens.
“The majority of people actually don’t have any idea where their food comes from,” he said. “It’s a matter of self-reliance.”
But opponents said they, too, have personal experience raising chickens.
“I grew up in Visalia and we had chickens. I plucked the feathers,” said Alva Gunn, a retired dental hygienist. “The reality is they are a big responsibility. Chickens get diseases, their droppings are going to cause problems for the neighbors. It’s very stinky.”
Paul Olsen of Visalia said he raised chickens as a boy and paid for his first car using money from egg sales.
He and his wife own several varieties of hens — Rhode Island red, Buff Orpington, Plymouth Rock and one other breed — that they keep at his landscaping business outside Visalia.
“We’d like to take three or four to the city,” he said, so he favors the ordinance.
Still, opponents raise valid concerns — “chickens getting out — that’s not right,” he said — so the proposed ordinance could be modified to require that the chickens be kept in coops at all times, he said.
He also recommends getting chickens inoculated from diseases that wild birds carry. A supply costs about $12, he said.
Two years ago, Exeter went through the same exercise and ended up allowing 10 chickens but no roosters, and coops are required.
“We’ve had virtually no complaints,” said City Manager Randy Groom. “If people have roosters, we hear about that.”
Steve Garver, a retired teacher in Exeter, said hens cluck when they lay eggs but are mostly quiet.
“We have neighborhood dogs that are louder than our chickens,” he said. The birds also produce great manure, he said.
Visalia Council Member Greg Collins, a self-employed city planner who said he has not taken a public position, said the push for backyard chickens has been building for several years: “There’s a movement across the country for people to be more self-reliant and eat healthy,” he said.
Cities must consider that “there could be a neighbor conflict,” he said. “Dogs like to get chickens.”
Chickens aren’t welcome in many Valley cities.
The Tulare City Council refused to allow backyard chickens when the issue came up five years ago, citing concerns about disease and fowl roaming streets or being abandoned and causing a headache for neighbors and animal control officers.
But to not allow chickens is to be behind the times, according to proponents, who say that dozens of cities allow chickens, including Berkeley and San Francisco.
The self-sufficiency trend is creating demand by urban dwellers for chicks, said Brice Yocum, proprietor of Sunbird Farms in Visalia, which raises heirloom breeds.
“It’s growing more than ever,” he said.