Valley Voices

Jerrold Jensen: Backyard farmers clash with city folks in Visalia

Can backyard farmers and traditional city dwellers coexist in Visalia?

We may have to if activists are successful with a petition drive that could eventually legalize possession of chickens and goats in our residential areas. As The Fresno Bee has reported, there is no active opposition. Many residents simply dismiss the issue as absurd. But there is obviously a militant group that wants to raise agricultural animals in their backyards, regardless of size.

What Valley city will be next on their target list? This campaign appears to be local but the treasurer and bank account are in Aptos, which is near Santa Cruz, and it is aggressively raising campaign funds nationwide. The mailing address is 20 miles away in Hanford, not Visalia. The couple who started the campaign only lived here for about six months before they set out to nullify our existing municipal codes and they may only be short-term residents if the husband receives new orders.

This became a political issue when a family based in Lemoore chose to live 40 miles away in the heart of Visalia instead of a rural area that would welcome barnyard animals. A few months later, their neighbors complained about odor coming from the backyard. City inspectors discovered small goats that needed to be removed because they violated both the nuisance code plus another code prohibiting agricultural animals on residential lots. According to The Bee, the wife said her goats replaced the breast milk she could not produce.

These new residents then pulled together a group of like-minded supporters and aggressively demanded the Visalia City Council change the municipal code banning possession of agricultural animals in residential areas. After being rejected, they began a petition drive to put the issue on a citywide ballot. If successful, it will allow four small goats, six chickens, and four cats and dogs in every backyard. No roosters would be permitted, and male goats must be neutered. There are no setback requirements, so pens, if any, could be closer to a neighbor’s house than their own. The special election would cost Visalia taxpayers about $120,000.

The co-leaders of the petition effort recently had a lengthy interview on a national radio broadcast. It offered a unique insight into the mindset of people who oppose childhood vaccinations and genetically modified foods, favor home schooling and insist that agricultural animals be permitted in backyard urban gardens. Sympathetic listeners across the country were motivated to contribute over $8,000 when the campaign leader stated there weren’t any pre-existing ordinances when the city forced removal of her goats. Truth, it seems, is always the first casualty in war and politics.

The arguments against backyard agricultural animals are pretty simple. Farmers describe goats as poop machines that stink and draw flies and are as loud as a car alarm without an off switch.

Chickens pose a different risk. On July 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an advisory warning of widespread outbreaks of salmonella infections traced to backyard chicken flocks. Children under age 5, adults over 65 and people with weakened immune systems were specifically warned to avoid contact. Spilled chicken feed also draws infestations of rats and mice that, like flies and bad odors, have little respect for fences. We know goats already caused one neighborhood odor problem and probably destroyed the potential resale value of any neighboring home until they were removed.

The couple who began this movement in Visalia are apparently not registered to vote in our county – at least not by the name listed on their original petition. By collecting signatures from college students and renters who are not homeowners, they may ultimately undermine the property values and existing rights of local residents who have lived for decades under municipal ordinances that preserve neighborhood tranquility.

These activists obviously have little concern for the impact of backyard farm animals on people who do not share their philosophy. Which Valley city will be next on their agenda?

Jerrold H. Jensen resides in Visalia.