Tampa reviews limits on urban chickens
TAMPA - For some Tampa residents, it's not unusual to be awakened in the morning by a crowing rooster. In Ybor City, Palmetto Beach and West Tampa, hens and roosters roam wild, the descendants of bygone flocks of immigrant-raised household poultry. Years after they were effectively banned from backyards, a new generation of chickens is quietly scratching out a living as egg-laying pets in neighborhoods across the city. "I think it's a really cool thing to have your own eggs," said Rick Guagliardo, vice president of the Southeast Seminole Heights Civic Association. "It's also an image thing for Seminole Heights."At the urging of South Tampa resident Susan Ramos, city leaders are now reviewing their rules limiting the ownership of chickens and other livestock. The city council will discuss the issue March 15. Tampa is just the latest city to take up the issue of urban chickens. Encouraged by the national trend of eating more locally grown food, city dwellers across the country have taken up the cause of backyard poultry. The Internet is awash with everything from advice on raising chickens to model ordinances supporters can offer their local governments. Those ordinances are needed because people aspiring to raise chickens often run up against century-old zoning rules that ban livestock from urban neighborhoods and suburban subdivisions. Those rules were developed with public health in mind and aimed to limit the risks of transmitting animal-borne diseases to people, said Ruth Steiner, a professor of planning at the University of Florida. Cities need to keep that in mind as they hear from advocates of local agriculture, many of whom are worried about the quality and safety of their food, she said. "While we would all like to believe that urban farmers can be responsible for ensuring the cleanliness of urban farms, we also have all heard stories about people who take on more than they can handle and accumulate more animals than they can handle," Steiner said. In Tampa, urban chickens create a lot of confusion. Conventional wisdom, Guagliardo said, is the city allows up to six chickens per property. But he has had trouble finding anyone at City Hall to confirm that. The city's rules on chickens are both fuzzy and not rigorously enforced. Chickens roaming wild in places like Ybor City are exempt from the rules governing farm animals, according to city Zoning Administrator Cathy Coyle. Instead, those birds are protected by the city's status as a bird sanctuary, she said. The city doesn't ban livestock outright, but it sets parameters that can make it hard to keep farm animals as pets. Where chickens are concerned, the city's rules say: City lots might be large enough to meet the square-footage requirements, but the distance from neighboring homes can be hard to meet. "If we get complaints, they'll get cited," Planning and Development Director Thom Snelling said of chicken owners. It doesn't happen often, he noted. And that may be encouraging Tampa residents to get into the backyard chicken trend, regardless of the rules. For $200, people can buy their own coop and chickens from Pasco County businessman Joey Holloway. Holloway, who owns a feed store in Land O' Lakes, has sold chickens to farmers for 30 years. Lately, he has become a fixture at farmer's markets in Seminole Heights and Hyde Park, where he sells coops to eager owners despite the city's rules. "It's like the chicken underground," Holloway said. That's one of the things Ramos hopes the city council will change. "Everybody's doing it," she said. "It's a good thing for a family." Like other backyard chicken advocates, Ramos notes the animals can teach children responsibility as well as giving them a lesson in where their food comes from. Also, Ramos hopes to start a business setting up and tending backyard coops if the city relaxes its rules. Pinellas County commissioners approved backyard chickens in December for unincorporated areas. Residents with single-family lots can keep up to four birds on their land. Chicken coops are allowed within 10 feet of the property line – as opposed to Tampa's 200-foot setback. The rules allow egg harvesting, but ban slaughtering chickens for their meat on the property. County Commissioner Susan Latvala said the county changed its rules partly because so many people were already keeping chickens illegally. She said the risk to public health from bird flu or other diseases is minimal to nonexistent. "Hens don't carry bird flu," Latvala said. "Like anything else, they have excrement. But proper hand-washing prevents any problems." Guagliardo said Seminole Heights' backyard chickens are common and popular, even if they may be less than legal. "I have friends that have then," Guagliardo said. "I can tell you it doesn't bother me at all."
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