The group Urban Chickens Advocates of Nashville recently celebrated its first year of existence. The ambitious citizens have a Facebook page with more than 400 followers, a set of colorful literature and a broad range of supporters, some of them influential.
Still, UCAN has yet to advance its central conceit: legislation that would allow wide-scale ownership of hens — for the purposes of producing organic eggs — within Davidson County’s Urban Services District.
Well before the “sustainable living movement” became prominent, many Nashvillians made like semi-farmers, raising chickens in their backyards. As late as 1975, parts of Green Hills included various properties with horses and goats. To imagine the tony suburb as such now would seem odd, if not outlandish.
But a return to hyperlocal farming has turned out to be far more difficult than leaving it behind was for practitioners a few generations ago.
The issue came to a head in 2009, as confusion about city law stirred: One part of the Metro code appeared to prohibit chickens in the county’s Urban Services District, while another section seemingly said it only became a violation if the chickens were a nuisance. Metro code does not allow chickens within the Urban Services District, except in the cases of properties that are zoned for agriculture.
Metro Councilmen Carl Burch and Jason Holleman attempted to clarify the code with competing legislation. Burch wanted to ban hen ownership altogether, noting during a council meeting at the time, “I firmly believe chickens have no place in the Urban Services District.” Holleman’s bill would’ve allowed backyard chickens in the USD.
Neither bill made it to third reading, leaving the code intact — and, some argue, vague and contradictory. Joey Hargis of Metro Codes said the USD has a handful of properties zoned for agricultural operations. In addition, chickens can be kept on properties that are five acres or larger and are within the county’s outlying General Services District.
The primary reason for a backyard chicken coop is to produce fresh eggs. It’s part of a local-eating movement that’s been strong across the country for years now, and in many cities backyard chickens are perfectly legal.
“We want the freedom to grow our own food,” said UCAN’s Mollie Henry, who lives near 12South. “It’s not roosters, it’s hens, and they certainly make less noise than a lot of barking dogs. This is not a pet issue.”
Alyce Dobyns, who co-founded UCAN with Mary Pat Boatfield, looks at hens like many people do their dogs and cats.
“You may not want chickens and that’s great, but your neighbor might want them, and you can get fresh eggs,” Dobyns said.
To date, Dobyns has worked with fellow Inglewood resident and District 8 Councilwoman Karen Bennett in shaping the language of a would-be bill. Bennett said she is considering sponsoring legislation but almost certainly would wait until after the Aug. 4 election.
“This is about being responsible with the produce we eat every day,” Bennett said. “It bothers me that we have otherwise law-abiding citizens that have to violate the code to have a viable food source as well as pets.”
Dobyns said she is “willing to wait [until after the election], but other people want to get it passed.” She said Bennett has been “informative and upfront” with UCAN from the beginning of the process.
But not everybody is ready to embrace fowls in the city.
Metro Councilman Jim Gotto, who voted with Burch in 2009, called UCAN’s goal “lofty and noble,” while adding, “the unintended consequences could be disastrous.”
Gotto said potential legislation broadening the current code “sounds good on paper,” but he likened it to an upcoming bill that would allow greater flexibility for citizens with home businesses, citing enforcement concerns and how the city’s core should function.
Judy Ladebauche, director of the Metro Health Department’s Division of Animal Care and Control, said the department remains neutral on the issue.
“We understand the concerns [of both those for and against the effort] and have no intention of supporting or opposing,” Ladebauche said, adding the department recently met with Boatfield, the executive director of the Nashville Humane Association, about the issue.
Hargis said the illegal keeping of chickens is not a problem the codes department often confronts. But during the past few years, the department has increasingly fielded inquiries from citizens who want to keep chickens, he said. An uptick in citizen awareness of a natural diet and concerns about trucking foods likely has spurred that rise, he added.
The codes department is prepared to effectively monitor hens if a bill to allow them in the USD is passed, Hargis said, but he noted a potential concern.
“If the council wants to permit chickens in urban areas of the city, then a restriction on the number of chickens on each property would be helpful,” he said.
Cities nationwide have moved to allow — and even encourage — backyard chicken ownership as part of the urban farming movement, which supports organic eggs and recognizes the dramatic decrease in the country’s small farms and concomitant dominance of large corporate farming operations. Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Seattle are among the many cities to have passed laws since 2008 that allow chickens in private residential yards within urban areas. In the state, Knoxville and Memphis have done likewise. Nearby, Louisville has a 15Thousand Farmers program that has gained strong support.
Jim Myers, executive director of Nashville-based Community Food Advocates, said his group supports the UCAN effort.
“We need to do a better job of developing urban agriculture within the city,” Myers said, “and keeping hens is a great way to do it.”