Backyard Chickens and Bureaucrats: The Regulatory Hurdles for Urban Homesteads

backyard chickens

The front line in the war against bondage to corporate agribusiness in the United States has historically been on small family farms. As competition has grown from larger, more efficient operations wielding weapons like government subsidies, buying-power, monoculture and synthetic inputs – small family farms have fallen victim to “The Big Ag”.

But the war is not lost. A perfect storm has been brewing for several years as the ominous clouds of a Great Recession converge with an avalanche of food recalls, and several diet-related healthcare epidemics. Urban food renegades, dieticians, eco-warriors, frugality gurus, journalists, philosophers and everyday Americans have begun to fight back. For the first time in decades they stand side-by-side with rural farmers and self-proclaimed Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatics – ready to fight for their right to affordable, safe, nutritious food; and the right to grow it in their own backyards.

They are told that chickens are too loud, despite the fact that egg-laying hens are quieter than a parakeet. They are told that goats are too large, despite several milking goat breeds that are smaller than the average golden retriever. They are told their compost piles stink, despite the industrial factories and sewage treatment plants lining the sides of their highways. While public perception lies at the heart of the matter – changing it is just the beginning of their battle.

The thing about laws, ordinances, animal control codes and HOA rules is that they are generated much faster than they decompose. We bind ourselves with more rules every day, but only seldom remove an archaic law from the books. Like a mess of fishing line around their feet, urban farmers have to patiently untangle their way out of the many federal, state, city and neighborhood regulations that keep them from exercising their right to feed themselves.

I live in Denver. We can have chickens here, but must jump through some fairly asinine bureaucratic hoops and pay fees so high they make the whole exercise counterproductive. First you submit an application to Animal Control, which costs $50. Then they come out to inspect the site, never having actually provided any guidance on what standards you’re supposed to meet. If these people approve you (never mind the fact that they’re trained to deal with dogs and cats and most don’t even seem to realize a chicken doesn’t need a rooster to lay eggs) then you’re on to the zoning department. You will be required to contact the neighborhood organization and council member for your area, and post two notices at two different times in your front yard, informing any neighbors (not just next door, but from blocks away) of their right to object. Why they can object to you having a Nigerian Dwarf goat while you can have nothing to say about their five great danes has yet to be answered – but, providing they don’t object after 30 days, you can now purchase a permit for $100. This permit costs $70 for renewal every year. Keep in mind this is only for the chickens you had at the time. Should one of your hens die (and they only lay well for 2-3 years) you’re supposed to pay again for their replacements.

Drive down the road a bit to the city of Colorado Springs and things are quite different. You can have up to ten chickens, ducks, quail… without having to notify anyone, apply for anything, or pay any fees.

And so the story goes in cities and neighborhoods across the country. Archaic, arbitrary, asinine regulations have been put in place by people who must think eggs come from a machine and milk is made in a laboratory. Speaking of milk, although people have sometimes used community supported agriculture (CSA) loopholes to get around it, none of us are allowed to buy milk from our neighbor without it being pasteurized at a federally inspected agency. Even if I sign a contract stating that I am fully aware of the risk of drinking unpasteurized milk, my neighbor still cannot sell it to me. Daddy-Government, in his paternalistic wisdom, thinks I am too stupid to make up my own mind about this. Meanwhile, we’re seeing a deluge of E Coli and salmonella recalls from the industrial food chain every month.

For decades we have legislated ourselves away from our food. We have allowed our small farms to be crushed by the weight of corporate agribusiness, unfair Farm Bills, and the rising costs of owning land. Yet it makes me smile to know that we “city-folk” are finally coming to our senses. We are starting to see how the laws created in Washington, our state capitals, our city councils and our neighborhood organizations are stripping away our natural birthright to grow and eat our own food. Small farmers have known this all along. And I think we are finally starting to hear their battle cry.

Would You Like to Join The Fight?
Here are some things you can do to get back or maintain your right to healthy, natural food from small farms and backyard gardens:

  • Write your representative in Congress and let them know you want the RIGHT to buy raw milk from small farms that advertise their milk as raw or unpasteurized and list the health risks associated with it.
  • Write your representative in Congress and tell them you are sick of subsidizing commodity crops that benefit corporate, monoculture agribusiness at the expense of dynamic small farms. Ask them why soy beans and corn are more deserving of your tax dollars than heirloom tomatoes and organic zucchini.
  • Write your representative in Congress and tell them to exempt small family farms from the “death tax” that forces multi-generational farming families into bankruptcy.
  • Visit The Chicken Laws page to brush up on the laws in your urban area, and to provide information on areas not yet included in the database.
  • Start a Garden if you haven’t already, and take some food production power into your own hands.
  • Support farmers markets and CSAs in your area.
  • Reconsider food prices and stop balking at a $1 organic, locally grown zucchini when you have a $5 cup of coffee in your hand and a $2,000 television on your wall. What is more important?
  • Join or start a group in your area that helps people learn how to grow, make and preserve their own food.
  • Open your mind to other points of view. Not all liberals want the government to fix everything, plenty of conservatives care about small farmers and the environment, and most Libertarians don’t want to do away with all government. The fight for food rights presents us with the perfect opportunity to find common ground, work together, and patch up the rift that has developed over the last decade.

Everett Sizemore started the Denver Urban Homesteading Group in early 2009. He and his wife Missy make how-to videos about simple living skills and have recently purchased 15-acres in southwest Virginia where they hope to start a homestead-style farmstay in 2011.

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aaronbaugher/ / CC BY 2.0

  1. Everett


    That’s a good loophole, but why should we be forced to jump through loopholes to get the food we want? If I am an adult who fully comprehends the benefit:risk ratio of consuming raw milk – what business is it of the government?

  2. nadine sellers

    dogs and cats are therapy animals.
    chickens and rabbits are food animals.
    then why are there so many undernourished neurotic owners around?
    nuisance laws should revolve about the degree of malfaisance that the animals create.
    cats feces leave toxic residue in soil, cause diseases and odors, and seasonal noise.
    dogs cause maddening nightly noise, and odor and danger.
    rabbits do not bark–chickens do not smell if kept in sanitary conditions.
    let the council weight the options.
    fresh food should be appreciated, at least the animal control folks would enjoy a change of pace, chickens have no teeth.
    well nourished people make better neighbors and flexible laws allow more peaceful existence.

  3. Celia Curtis

    I challenge anyone to come over and smell my chickens and my compost bins, and decide for themselves whether my neighbor’s large dogs (which are outside 24-7) or my chickens make more noise at night. There’s nothing unreasonable about wanting to keep a few chickens along with our pet dogs in the city. If your neighbors had hens, you might realize it’s not such a bad deal if you got a dozen fresh eggs every few weeks – like my neighbors do.

  4. Everett


    What’s the problem with chickens in the city? Not everyone has the luxury of being able to buy a farm. Does that mean they don’t have the right to feed themselves? If I own a quarter of an acre in the city it’s still MY land and I should be able to do whatever the hell I want with it as long as I’m not harming anyone else.

    YOU stop making life so damn difficult by butting your nose in other peoples’ business.

  5. Sundari

    A big thumbs-up to Nadine — I completely agree. Maggie, I have to confess that I don’t understand you at all. The idea that folks who live in the city must rely on others (primarily the industrial food system) to provide 100% of their food is ludicrous. The paradigm that one lives here, works over there, and has their food produced WAAAY out there is outdated and antiquated. It reflects the notion of 1950’s suburban living. How well did that work out for us?

    You clearly know nothing about Food-Producing Animals (like chickens or dwarf goats) and how they are raised. I live in a large city and I may not own a lot of land, but my 3500 square foot backyard is plenty adequate to cleanly raise a small flock of hens and a couple of dwarf goats. They’re quieter than my neighbor’s dogs, don’t bite people, and the children in the neighborhood just love them. I could go on and on (and if you care to learn more, please visit my website) but I’m going to hold my tongue — if only because your comments are so misguided that I’m tempted to think that you were just kidding.

    And, for what it’s worth, Everett is also right. It’s my land, so frankly you should butt out.

  6. Derec

    Everett, great post. We have six hens, two rabbits, and two bee hives in Denver, along with a garden. It’s misguided and perplexing that people who don’t understand urban agriculture and the impacts are making rules and imposing costs on those who choose to create a more sustainable home.

    We went through the zoning process and it was bureaucratic quagmire with the city staff frequently not knowing the process themselves and additional imposing requirements (and costs) on a whim. On top of the annual fee we’re supposed to pay, there was NO value back to us for all the money we’ve paid to the city and county to satisfy the regulations.

    I’m surprised how well our animals have adapted to an urban neighborhood and the neighbors love them. They enjoy the eggs and many comment at seeing our bees out pollinating their flowers.

    Not only is this urban agriculture but it’s also something that helps bring communities together.

  7. Everett


    You mentioned that you’re not getting any “value” back from the fees you pay. That is an interesting point that I hadn’t even thought of. Hunters get value back from their fees every time the forestry service cleans up an area, puts out a fire, and conducts animal population studies. Drivers get value back from fees when potholes are patched and new roads are built (ostensibly, anyway…) so where is THIS money going that people have to pay to the city and animal control? Good point.

  8. pays to live green

    I see nothing wrong with people wanting to eat food they produce themselves. We are so dependent on large farms that use questionable practices, so why not be allowed to get fresh eggs and milk at your finger tips.

    Many of the commentors hit the nail on the head with the point that there are so many pet owners out there that do not properly take care of their animals and only receive a slap on the wrist. Local government’s need to start removing some of these crazy regulations they have, just because some people have stigma against others owning farm animals.

  9. Everett

    And the fact that someone who signs their name as “pays to live green” would admit that what we need is “to start removing some of these crazy regulations…” goes to show how this issue is opening the minds of many traditionally “liberal” urban voters – myself included.

    What many conservatives (not the bible beating ones, but the fiscally and legislatively conservative ones) have been talking about for years is how asinine legislation has been binding the hands of our small businesses, which is having an effect on our economy.

    I’m all for government regulation when it comes to keeping companies from dumping toxic sludge into our waterways and that sort of thing. But if we homeowners have to deal with this kind of stuff, then maybe – just maybe – there are some senseless laws binding our small businesses too. Think about it.

    I guess my point is that this issue doesn’t have to separate us further. It has the potential to bring people together across party lines and heal some of this partisan nonsense that’s been going on.

  10. Derec

    Everett, I agree whole-heartedly with the last paragraph in your last comment.

    This issue is something that should allow us to pause and step back to look at the effects of what we’re doing in terms of over-regulating our society and the unintended consequences.

    There are so many issues and people out there looking to divide us, especially on the political level, that it’s good seeing an issue that we can come together to address.

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