Crying Fowl

A member of Nic Coury’s Seaside flock. Chickens, Coury says, are a great part of “the circle of life” of the garden, eating scraps, providing compost and laying eggs.

Tuesday, Nov. 3, shortly after 4pm. The temperature was in the 60s, the Salinas City Council was meeting by Zoom and it was going to be a great day: After months of henpecking, the council was considering whether to direct staff to prepare an ordinance allowing Salinas residents to own domestic chickens, which means I would finally be allowed to own chickens.

With a few strokes of a few pens, I could join friends like Nic Coury of Seaside, who fusses over a small flock like, well, a mother hen. I could join a South County friend whose backyard includes a deluxe, two-level chicken hotel inhabited by the birds she refers to as her ladies. I would hear the gentle warbling of my own flock, which would cruise around the yard during the day, pecking at bugs in the dirt and – depending on the time of the year – eating the apples and peaches that drop from the trees. Not fruit season? They would get organic kale scraps from the garden I overplant. And at night, they would bed down in a coup reminiscent of a design by Frank Lloyd Wright. (Yes, those plans exist, and they are all over Pinterest.)

During laying season, I would hand out eggs to friends on an unprecedented level. I would be like one of those zucchini people, only with eggs.

The proposal to allow backyard chickens in Salinas was first floated by Councilmember Steve McShane in spring 2019, and backed by Mayor Pro Tem Christie Cromeenes. McShane, who was ramping up his run for District 4 County Supervisor, had been spending a lot of time on the Peninsula, and noted Marina and Seaside allow yard hens – in Marina, you can keep up to four (no roosters allowed) and they can be raised for eggs only, not for meat. Seaside allows up to four as well.

As it turns out, so does almost everywhere else, except, perplexingly, Gonzales. Monterey requires a chicken use permit if you want more than four birds. Carmel allows two per household – and requires enclosures to go through a design review process, which may be the most Carmel thing ever. Pacific Grove allows them, subject to a permit, as does Soledad. And in Greenfield, chickens are allowed with a Future Farmers of America or 4H permit for youth education.

There are other rules: nowhere in any city can you allow chickens to run free. No city allows roosters because of the noise. And you have to keep the chickens’ environment sufficiently clean to prevent foul odors from wafting through the air.

But in a June 2019 memo to McShane and Cromeenes, City Attorney Chris Callihan wrote a chicken ordinance “will be a controversial item, both in the public and among the council members.” One reason: A pending General Plan update that will entail zoning code updates. And with new development in Salinas trending toward smaller homes – and thus smaller backyards – it means the city needed to consider how zoning requirements might clash with chickens. Meanwhile, yard chickens would most likely be prohibited in multi-family settings like apartment buildings and townhomes.

The process moved slowly – so slowly, in fact, that McShane says he sent multiple emails to the city asking for an update.

“This needed resolution,” McShane says.

So it was that the ordinance was agendized for the election night meeting. After Cromeenes suggested a subcommittee should examine how other cities regulate chickens, the entire idea was voted down 3-2, with only Cromeenes and McShane in favor, Councilmember Tony Barerra unable to participate due to technical issues and councilmembers Gloria De La Rosa, Scott Davis and Tony Villegas opposed. (Villegas and De La Rosa are both leaving office after this term.)

“I’m against any chickens in the city,” De La Rosa said. “I’ve had a lot of complaints here in Laurel Heights, about (illegal) chickens, not only chickens but goats and sheep.”

Will chickens and those who love them live to fight another day? Yes. The results of the supervisor’s race haven’t been certified, but it looks like McShane will remain on City Council. Sustainable Salinas has already rallied support and there’s casual organizing around the idea taking place.

“Like a lot of things,” McShane says, “I’m not going to resist bringing it back with better study.”

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