When planning becomes most fowl

Backyard Chickens: Some suburban families try to maintain a connection to our society’s idealized agrarian roots through hobby farms and backyard chickens.  Photos by Jason Radtke.

by Jason Radtke, Pullman, Washington

More than any other facet of planning—possibly even more than private property rights — regulating people’s animals can raise public ire. Owners often perceive it as an attack on their family or livelihood.

Early in my planning career, I spent a day training in code enforcement procedures. My planning director at the time took me into the field to perform a few site visits, and one of our stops was the home of Dave. (Certain details have been changed to protect individuals’ identities.) Dave’s particular code violation involved the keeping of a dozen dogs in his small residence (in my particular jurisdiction, a maximum of three dogs is allowed in any residential zone). Two things were immediately apparent: the smell and the noise. Although I stood only a few feet from the director as he spoke to Dave, I could not hear their conversation.

The director told me later that he explained to Dave the regulations concerning animals. Per our protocol for cases of this type, the director also explained his options (remove the appropriate number of animals from the residence or relocate outside the city boundaries) and the consequences of non-compliance (possible Notice of Violation with associated fines and court proceedings regarding abatement of the infraction). That’s where this case dipped its figurative toe into surreal waters.

It started with an interview in the local paper. Dave’s account painted the planning department in a malicious light; we were the bureaucratic monster forcing the poor retired man to murder his small, defenseless companions and live out his life morose and alone or be driven from the town he had called home for over a decade (we never said either of these things). He then stated that he would never give the dogs up to a shelter because he wouldn’t want them destroyed (our local shelter is no-kill). Next came the flyers posted around the city, filled with alliterative and condemning poetry and pictures of his dogs looking sad and frightened. He plastered his car with similar signs and held a one-man march on city hall. He even sued for a preemptory injunction, attempting to utilize a criminal justice student as a lawyer—unsuccessfully, of course.

So what was the outcome of all Dave’s effort? After many warnings and deadlines extended due to his beseeching and broken promises, we finally issued a Notice and took him to court. The judge levied a small fine against him and ordered abatement. The day the municipal police arrived to remove the animals, they found the residence abandoned.

Pet Peeves

We humans love our domesticated animals. They offer companionship and solace, provide comfort and amusement, even protect our homes and—in the case of livestock—are a source of nourishment, income, and sometimes transportation. If we are forced to rid ourselves of these creatures that so enrich our lives, it doesn’t just upset us, it tears us apart. Cases like Dave’s conjure in the public imagination the opening scene in The Wizard of Oz where the nefarious Miss Gulch uses legal authority—in the movie, a warrant from the sheriff—to take Toto from Dorothy to have him destroyed.

Indeed, we moved very carefully in our pursuit of compliance with Dave, aware of the potential public relations disaster, attempting to work with him for a mutually satisfactory resolution to this matter, until it was obvious there wouldn’t be one. Adding to the difficulty associated with this case were Dave’s landlords, who hoped to use his non-compliance with city code as an excuse to evict him. They pressed the city for more aggressive enforcement, and even for the city to bear the financial burden of Dave’s relocation. Obviously, cases like these require a plentiful measure of delicacy and diplomacy.

As more people attempt to balance their desire for the convenience of an urban lifestyle and the simplicity of rural living, these issues become more complicated. Suburban families try to maintain a connection to our society’s idealized agrarian roots through hobby farms and backyard chickens. They want to operate a kennel or rabbit-breeding business out of their homes to help make ends meet. When this happens, the neighbors usually aren’t especially thrilled. So the responsible jurisdiction enacts regulations to prevent these types of situations from occurring. However, those rare individuals who romanticize the notion of riding a horse to work or eating fresh-laid eggs in the morning can become very vocal when the city intervenes to facilitate the removal of the rooster that awakens everybody in the subdivision at 5:30 in the morning.

It all boils down to that fundamental premise of why we implement zoning in the first place: the separation of incompatible uses. Just as a jurisdiction would be reluctant to allow a gravel quarry to locate next to a single-family housing project, so should any particular homeowner not have to worry about the stench and noise of their neighbor keeping swine in the backyard.

Thus, codifying the keeping of animals becomes a balancing act. When and where should people be allowed to have cattle, sheep, or a small pack of hounds? Are bees too dangerous to keep in a high-density residential zone? How does a planning official break the news to the local Crazy Cat Lady that she’s going to have to choose three of her 34 animals to keep?

Gently but firmly, that’s how—just like when I have to tell five college students that their property management company will have to relocate one or two of them, or a particular homeowner that they are going to have to move the storage building they just built within their required yard setback. Of course, people don’t quite bond to their roommates or sheds the same way they do to their animals. Losing a beloved pet will most likely cause more anguish and rage than being out a few bucks of rent or construction costs. I’ve heard an amazing variety of excuses from noncompliant pet owners: the animal (or animals) saved their lives somehow, they’re just keeping it for a friend or relative, some other department or agency said it was okay. And this problem is on the rise. I’ve received calls from outside jurisdictions wondering how we deal with animal problems and how successful we are.

The Truth About Cats and Dogs (and Horses and Chickens)

More and more jurisdictions are enacting legislation regarding animals. I offer the following brief summations of regulatory mechanisms in selected jurisdictions by way of example. Additionally, Table 1 on the next page indicates the existence of animal regulations in other selected municipalities within the Western Planner service area, as well as the types of animals so regulated.

Pullman, Washington

Pullman regulates not just livestock and fowl, but also household pets such as dogs, cats and rabbits.

  • In residential districts, citizens are limited to three dogs or three cats (or four such animals in some combination) and four rabbits. More are allowed if your lot is 10,000 square feet or larger, with administrative permission.
  • The smallest lot size for keeping fowl is 10,000 square feet and 2,000 square feet is required per bird. Coops and other housing must be 20 feet from property lines.
  • For livestock, 20,000 square feet of lot area is necessary. For goats or sheep, you will need 5,000 square feet of land per animal; for larger animals, 10,000 square feet per animal. Housing for said animals has to be 40 feet from property lines; grazing areas, 20 feet.
  • For fowl and livestock, administrative authorization is also required. Beekeeping is permitted; swine are not. Electric fences are also prohibited.

Moscow, Idaho

In Moscow, you’ll need to comply with the following for your animals:

  • Twenty-five rabbits are allowed per 5,000 square feet of lot (maximum 50 animals), provided hutches are kept 40 feet from property lines.
  • If you plan on selling fowl, six birds are authorized, except for turkeys, which are limited to three.  With an additional 1,250 square feet of lot per animal, up to 12 fowl or six turkeys may be kept. If the birds aren’t intended for sale, 25 are acceptable. The minimum lot size for keeping fowl is 5,000 square feet. A 20-foot setback is required to the coop (forty for turkeys). Roosters, peafowl, guinea fowl, ostriches and emus are prohibited.
  • One horse, cow, goat or sheep is allowed on lots 10,000 square feet or larger. Beyond that, an additional 5,000 square feet per animal is required. Residents may not keep swine.
  • Fences to contain fowl and livestock must be constructed so as to prevent the animals from escaping. If a lot is not of sufficient size to meet code specifications, a property owner may receive a permit if 75 percent of the property owners within 200 feet sign a statement of approval and the city council approves said statement.

Mesa, Arizona

Mesa has this to say on the subject:

  • For the first half-acre, 10 rabbits may be kept. Each additional ten require an additional half-acre. Properties over 2 ½ acres have no limit.
  • For fowl, regulations are similar to those for rabbits. The keeping of large flightless birds depends upon the size of the property, and is determined by a point system. Lots of 35,000 to 43,560 square feet grant two points; each additional 10,890 square feet grants another point. For the Lehi sub-area, 35,000 to 43,560 square feet offers four points with additional points given for 10,890 square feet beyond that. Points may be redeemed at a rate of 0.75 points per bird.
  • The point system also applies to livestock. Points are gained at the same rate as for large flightless birds; goats and sheep cost 0.5 points each; horses and cows, one point each; and camelids (such as llamas and alpacas) cost 0.75 points each.
  • For all animals, 40-foot setbacks to enclosures and 75-foot setbacks to coops, stables, or other housing are required. Large birds and livestock necessitate a license. Flies, noxious odors, and unsanitary conditions are prohibited.
  • Apiaries and non-human primates are also regulated. Primates must be kept in some form of securely-locked containment; said containment must comply with state and federal regulations; and the animals must be sufficiently leashed when not caged. Enclosures must be kept 75 feet from neighbors’ houses. Three animals are the maximum allowed. Bee hives are allowed in agricultural or rural zones.

Missoula, Montana

In Missoula, animals are regulated thusly:

  • Only two dogs can be kept at the same residence without a permit. Cats must be altered, unless the owner has a breeder’s license. To enable the possession of more than five rabbits, the property on which they reside must be one-fourth acre or larger. Hutches for these rabbits have required setbacks of 30 feet to residences and 20 feet to property lines.
  • Six fowl, including urban chickens, may be kept. For all fowl but urban chickens, a one-half acre of enclosure is mandated, unless the property is larger than one acre. This enclosure has to be at least 20 feet from any residence and 50 feet from property lines. Within the enclosure, a coop is required, and the birds are to be kept in the coop from dusk until dawn. These regulations do not apply to urban chickens; however, such birds must have a coop of two square feet per bird.
  • For livestock, the only regulations state that the animals have to have at least one acre of property with a half-acre enclosure.

Plight or Flight

So what happened to Dave? Last I heard he was living in a tent, moving from campground to campground, staying until he was asked to leave. He still has his dogs with him; however, he’s down to eight now.

I cite Dave’s case to illustrate what an emotionally-charged issue this is. More than any other facet of planning—possibly even more than private property rights—regulating people’s animals can raise public ire. Citizens perceive us as attacking their family or their livelihood. In fact, I’ve heard of only two times people protested city hall in my town. Both involved animals, and both ended with the same result: people giving up their homes rather than giving up their pets. And as the population continues to shift from rural to urban, I expect more people wanting to hang on to that agrarian ideal. That’s why it’s important for communities to look to implementing animal regulations before prevention becomes confiscation, and irritation over what can’t be done becomes anger over what was.


Jason Radtke lives with his wife and children in Eastern Washington where he has worked in both city and tribal planning.


Published in April/May 2013

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