Following the Code
Communities Respond to Backyard Farming
While reading a story with my almost two-year-old granddaughter Lyric, I was enchanted with the adorable pronunciation she gives to the word, ‘goat.’ “You should get Lyric a goat,” I told her mother, but I was only kidding.
A week later, Misty called to tell me about the goat she had found to buy, and her plan to keep it at my house. “Oh no,” I said. “I don’t want a goat.” I have had goats before, you see, and understand they are more work than I am prepared for. “But it will mow your grass,” she replied, and the thought of staying on top of the tall, mosquito-infested grass in what David named ‘the forbidden zone,’ had me momentarily intrigued. “The problem is,” I told her, “Clark Fork doesn’t allow goats.”
“Really?” she replied, surprised. “Because Sandpoint does.”
It was my turn to be surprised. If any town in this area would allow goats, I would expect it to be Clark Fork, with its more rural flair. And that led me into an exploration of the various rules and regulations that cover backyard livestock in our area.
Urban farming is becoming a trend nationwide as people seek to gain more control over the food they eat. Food recalls due to contamination and illnesses, growing bacteria contamination in store-bought food (In a January, 2014 story, Consumer Reports shared that 94 percent—94 percent!—of the chicken breasts they purchased at stores “harbored harmful gut bacteria” that can make you ill. Even chicken labeled organic!), concern over unknown ingredients—even the “food miles” associated with food purchased at the grocery store have all led to an increased interest in people producing their own food for consumption. From vegetable gardens to keeping chickens for eggs or bees for honey, more and more people who don’t live on a farm are adopting a ‘farming-lite’ lifestyle, and municipalities are racing to respond. And not just small towns; the Worldwatch Institute, which calls chickens the “mascot” for the “buy local movement,” points out that big cities like Los Angeles and Chicago have ordinances that allow, at least in some measure, for farm animals to be raised in the city.
While we might not be as large as LA or Chicago, our local area is also responding to the trend. The city of Sandpoint has developed a remarkably flexible set of codes for those seeking an urban farm lifestyle, and Bonner County (near the end of June) modified its “suburban zone” ordinance to allow for greater flexibility for residents looking to add livestock to their backyard. Even Clark Fork, with its formerly intransigent “no livestock, period” rules, adopted an ordinance this April allowing for the raising of backyard chickens and rabbits.
If the thought of property codes determining what you can and cannot do with animals on your own property sets your teeth on edge, bear in mind that codes are designed with three purposes in mind: responsible animal ownership, respect for one’s neighbors, and a recognition of how your activities may burden the municipality in question.
For Bonner County, the codes in question are Title 12 (Land Use Regulations), and they can be found online at http://tinyurl.com/kqehxra. If you live in the Sandpoint city limits, read through Title 5 (Police Regulations), online at http://tinyurl.com/create.php, with density restrictions found in Title 9. Clark Fork’s ordinances are not available online, but you can stop by City Hall in the morning hours and visit with Nina or Amber to find out what you need to know. In fact, if you’re truly interested in raising animals within city limits anywhere, a visit to the appropriate city offices is a smart idea.
If you’re ready to jump on the backyard animal bandwagon, it’s important that you do your research, and understand the needs of the animal you might be interested in keeping (as well as your community’s regulations about them). The reality is that most city lots are simply not big enough for raising more than a few chickens or rabbits, and it’s cruel to the animal to keep it in an area too small to meet its needs.
Any animal you keep will need to be fed and watered, and storing that feed will be crucial if you want to keep predators out of your yard. Chicken feed (like cat food and dog food) is a mighty tempting snack for the local skunks, as well as our town-habituated deer and moose. While you might find it cute to see a deer or moose munching lunch out of your feed bin, these are wild animals that present a host of dangers to town dwellers and their other pets. The vet bill to repair your dog after he’s been kicked by a moose will be shocking, I promise you.
Appropriate housing for your chosen livestock is also important, particularly at night. While a cougar might not be willing to come into town for a late-night chicken snack, a raccoon, already there, will find your chickens quite tasty indeed, and poultry slaughtered by raccoons is not a pretty sight to wake up to in the morning. Don’t ask me how I know this.
Other animals have different needs you must be prepared to meet. A goat kept for milk, for example, must be milked twice a day, regardless of whether you want to sleep in, or had to stay late at work. Backyard farmers will learn quickly that farming is a lot of work, and demands a commitment that cannot be ignored. While a back yard can’t compare to a full-sized farm, any backyard animal keeper will quickly develop a greater appreciation for the hard work that farmers do.
Give some thought, as well, to what you will do with these animals if the time comes you don’t want to keep them anymore, or in the event of their death. Dead goats can’t be tossed in the garbage can for pick-up; baby goats (which you will have if you want a goat for milking) or rabbits need to have a home that wants them, unless you’re planning to keep them yourself; and if you live in town, you likely don’t have enough land to keep them all. Dropping them off somewhere out in the ‘wild’ is not acceptable, and should go without saying.
The second part of zoning regulations has to do with respect for your neighbors. While you may find the sound of a rooster crowing at 3 am delightful, your neighbors may well think differently, which is why most regulations do not allow roosters in city limits.
Even hens can be surprisingly loud up close, which is why some regulations include setback limits for where coops and runs are placed. And few communities give a green light to swine, though Bonner County’s suburban zone ordinance does allow an exception—one pot-bellied (miniature) pig.
Noise, in fact, is a big complaint when people begin to keep animals, and is generally covered under an area’s nuisance laws. From your stereo to your barking dog to the peacock that sounds like a screaming woman, if your activities create a nuisance to your neighbors, there’s going to be a problem.
Smell is another issue, and dealing with animal waste is a concern for all municipalities. If you’re going to keep animals, you need to have a plan in place to deal with their waste—and there can be a lot of it! Of course, not all waste is equal. Six chickens, for example, generate about the same amount of manure as a medium-sized dog. The chicken manure, however, can be easily composted for your garden. While dog (and cat) manure can also be composted, it’s a slightly more intensive process—mostly, it seems, because of roundworms and other parasites that can make their way into your food.
If you’re raising animals directly for food, realize that in most communities, backyard slaughter is going to be a no-go. Research ahead of time to figure out how you’re going to get your birds (or other critters) from your yard to your freezer. (The local Co-Op is a good resource for information about this.)
Fencing is also an area of concern; animals running loose become not only an issue for the neighbors, but for drivers who meet them on the road, and for city or county officials who must respond to complaints. Larger areas may have personnel to deal with these issues, but smaller towns can find themselves strapped if called in to deal with a problem you may have inadvertently created in your zeal to keep animals. Clark Fork’s handyman/dog catcher came up against this reality face to face when called upon to address an escaped boa constrictor found in someone’s yard a while back. And just two years ago, New York City grappled with how to respond to bee swarms from improperly kept backyard bees. (Swarms are generally caused by overcrowding in the home hive.)
Zoning rules, however, are mostly driven by a need to regulate competing land uses. They are a manifestation of the colorful idea that, as put by Zecheriah Chaffee in the Harvard Law Review of 1919, “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”
Nonetheless, zoning regulations are discriminatory by nature, and when written into specifics, that discrimination is often subjective (and thereby open to challenge). Looking back to the manure example, why can one family have only five laying hens (equivalent in manure to one dog, while a dog’s bark, at 90 decibels, is comparable to a rooster’s crow), yet another family can have three dogs? Why chickens and not ducks, pheasants, turkeys or quail? Why rabbits and not guinea pigs or pygmy goats? Why alpaca, but not emus? And what about all those exotic animals you can purchase at any big city pet store? (Not just snakes, but they even sell sharks, scorpions and crocodiles! Really! Crocodiles, by the way, are banned in Sandpoint city limits.)
Sandpoint seems to have the edge here, as its regulations are mostly based on density and nuisance, and avoid trying to name specific types of animals. In any area, however, procedures are in place that allow a resident seeking to keep an unapproved animal to approach their local zoning regulators, and argue for why they should be an exception to the rule.
If you live within city limits, check with your city offices about applicable ordinances that might either help or hinder your quest to become a backyard farmer. Outside the city limits you’re covered under the county’s ordinances: a map of the various districts can be found online at http://tinyurl.com/pxa746u. Bonner County’s suburban zones, where the ordinances were recently modified to be less restrictive to urban farming practices, are generally located near city limits, an area “where urban sewer and water services are either available or have the potential to become available in the near future,” according to their code.