CLEARWATER — Behind closed doors, there’s a small population illegally dwelling within the city.
These residents are well-mannered, relatively clean and, aside from possibly causing a small drop in supermarket egg sales, wouldn’t be much of an economic burden if there were more of them. At least, that’s what a growing number of residents who want the city to legalize backyard chickens are saying.
Spearheading the movement is lifelong resident Erin Bennett, 31. She has been trying to persuade the Clearwater City Council to take up the issue since January. Last month, the council decided not to discuss the matter.
“Every idea that I’ve brought to them has been turned down,” she said.
Since then, Bennett has been talking to other residents, and there appears to be growing support in the community. That support follows a multi-year, nationwide trend toward keeping hens for eggs in urban areas across the country, including communities adjacent to Clearwater.
Bennett said she doesn’t keep chickens; it would be illegal. She gets fresh eggs from a woman who keeps hens in Largo, where residents are allowed to raise them, as they are in St. Petersburg, Gulfport, Dunedin, Belleair, Tarpon Springs and unincorporated areas of Pinellas County.
“There are already people within city limits who raise backyard fowl,” she said. “I’ve gone about this trying to do things the legal way.”
Bennett said there are myriad benefits to keeping chickens. The eggs taste better. They’re said to have significantly more nutritive value than those of the factory-farmed variety, including notably more omega-3 fatty acids and beta carotene. With each hen laying about one egg a day, they’re also good for the budget. Plus, they’re actually pretty endearing.
“You ever watch fish in an aquarium? Similar thing,” said Mike Loblein, a Clearwater resident who is supporting Bennett’s efforts. “I enjoy them.”
The practice, though, is not without its detractors.
Those who aren’t hip to it, including Clearwater council members, cite possible long-term impacts.
Councilman Hoyt Hamilton said during a recent meeting, there’s the question of what to do with all of the hens that mature past the point of laying eggs. They only do it for two out of 10 years, and some people wonder whether all the non-egg-producing chickens will be dumped on animal shelters or even the street.
There are also concerns about cleanliness, that an unkempt coop would offend the neighbors.
Councilman Bill Jonson said the city has bigger fish to fry at the moment — like the Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s move downtown — and can’t spare staff time for research into how nearby places are making backyard chickens work.
Bennett said she wants to work with the city on an ordinance that would strictly define what residents can and can’t do, such as making it illegal to keep roosters and limiting the number of hens per household.
She said they are relatively easy to keep clean, and the potential problem of excess hens that no longer lay eggs could be solved with help from petting zoos, sanctuaries or even butcher shops, but most hens end up becoming pets.
Bennett has taken her chicken crusade to various community groups and neighborhood associations throughout the city, and she said most of those that don’t support the cause outright don’t seem to have a problem with it.
“If there was some way to regulate and permit it, I guess it would be okay,” said Carl Schrader, president of the Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition. “Can’t be any worse than a barking dog.”
Bennett also has circulated a petition that has more than 1,000 signatures. She said she will keep advocating for backyard chickens until the city agrees to discuss the issue.