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Commission favors relaxed chicken rules for Valley

No feathers were ruffled during last week’s Spokane Valley Planning Commission meeting to discuss loosening the rules regarding chickens in residential areas of the city. Residents flocked to the meeting to speak in favor of allowing more people to keep chickens.

Several people gave long, impassioned speeches on the benefits of having chickens, including having a supply of fresh eggs, teaching children responsibility and having the birds provide free lawn services in the form of pest control, aeration and fertilization.

After nearly three hours of public testimony, the planning commission voted unanimously to recommend to the City Council that the rules be relaxed.

Current city codes only allow chickens on lots larger than 40,000 square feet. Any chicken coop must be located in the backyard at least 75 feet away from any habitable structure and must be at least 10 feet away from side property lines.

“The city does receive a number of complaints every year to the code enforcement officer for chickens,” said assistant planner Christina Janssen. Most of the complaints revolve around noise created by roosters.

Resident Linda Hurt said chickens are “very beneficial,” particularly since food prices are rising. She believes backyard eggs are healthier. “They’re better tasting,” she said.

Bridget Jackson said she currently has 26 chickens that she is raising to eat. “I just want to speak on the behalf of roosters,” she said. “There are some little ones that don’t crow very loud.”

Jackson said she buys chicks every spring and tries to butcher the roosters before they become a nuisance. She said her chickens aren’t as loud as a neighbor’s barking dog.

“I don’t like crowing either,” she said. “I’ve gone out and chopped their heads off at 5 a.m. myself.”

Resident Stephen Dunn used to have eight chickens on his property on East Frederick Avenue. He said he didn’t realize he couldn’t have them until someone reported him to the city. He gave the chickens away. “We miss them,” he said. “The kids enjoyed them.”

He had a mobile coop and moved it around the yard so the chickens would have fresh areas to peck. “There was no smell,” he said. “They’re pretty clean gals,” he said. “If you have people that aren’t the cleanest folk, I think chickens are the least of your worries. I think the worst thing that I had was they ate my raspberries.”

Debbra Nelson said she has lived at the same location on Valleyway for 32 years and has almost always had three or four chickens. “I don’t have any at the current time because a dog killed them,” she said. “I would love to get some more without breaking the law.”

The city shouldn’t be forced to regulate chickens, said Dennis Oyler, who has 15 chickens on his half-acre lot. “They’re not bothering anyone,” he said. “They’re just wandering around scratching and having fun.”

If people are good neighbors, having a few hens clucking and pecking shouldn’t be a problem, he said. “When I feel a little stress, I go out and watch my chickens,” he said. “Let people have their chickens.”

Commissioner Arne Woodard launched the discussion by proposing that residents be allowed to have up to four chickens on lots smaller than 25,000 square feet and one additional chicken for every 2,000 square feet of land over that size. “Let’s cluck awhile and we can crow when we’re done,” he said.

Commissioner Marcia Sands said it was great that so many residents attended the meeting and gave their opinions. Such rules are necessary because not everyone is a good neighbor, she said. Sands spoke in favor of setting a maximum of 25 chickens. “It really borders on commercial growing at that point,” she said. “Where we have it it’s a highly intrusive law. It needs to be opened up quite a bit.”

Relaxing the rules is a chance for the city to take into consideration movements toward getting food locally or raising it yourself, said Commissioner Rustin Hall. “This is an opportunity for our city to really be on the cutting edge of something,” he said. “Let’s get out of the way and make it happen.”

Woodard suggested limiting residents to owning only hens. “I’m opposed to roosters, too,” said commission Chairman John Carroll. “I think that’s the source of the complaints.”

Sands said roosters aren’t all bad, but noise isn’t the only consideration. “Some people raise roosters for less pleasant reasons,” she said. “I don’t want to see Spokane Valley go that route. I think that’s something we need to consider.”

Commissioners also discussed the rule that chicken coops must be 75 feet away from any home. Carroll wanted to keep the requirement the same, while others advocated reducing it to 25 feet or eliminating the requirement altogether. “My question would be why?” said Commissioner Joe Mann on the distance requirement. “What difference would it make?”

Several residents had taken the time during the public hearing to ask the commission to also relax the rules on ducks, goats, turkeys and other animals, but there wasn’t any support for that idea. “Ducks are noisy and turkeys are nasty,” said Carroll.

“If we start talking about ducks and things we’ll be here all night,” said Commissioner Bill Bates.

In the end the commissioners agreed to recommend that residents on lots larger than 6,000 square feet be allowed to have one chicken for every 2,000 square feet up to a maximum of 25. The recommendation is also that chicken coops must be located 25 feet from any home, and chickens be allowed to roam freely as long as they are contained on the owner’s property.

In other business, the commission also voted to recommend to the City Council changes to the city’s adult entertainment ordinance. At a previous meeting they had asked city staff to come back with tougher language that would make it clear that adult retail businesses cannot show adult films for a fee on site.

Acting City Attorney Cary Driskell drafted some new language but cautioned that the commission might not want to use it because of the legal risk. The city of Spokane has been involved with lawsuits with its adult businesses for a decade, he said. That industry is quick to sue to maintain its rights, he said. “They’re constantly trying to push the bounds. It is a very, very, very highly litigated area. That’s why I urge caution in the way we go about it.”

Woodard favored going with the tougher language while Sands said she didn’t want the city to get sued. “They do protect their rights through litigation,” she said.

In a split vote, Woodward, Bates, Mann and Commissioner Joseph Stoy voted to recommend the tougher language to the City Council.

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