It’s neither his choice nor his preference, but Ian Hall has to eat his eggs fresh. His expiration date is three days old. For Hall, eggs must virtually come right out of the chicken.
The 43-year-old, who lives in Madison and works at a Nashville grocery store, is allergic to bacteria found on the embryo of eggs. Cooking eggs doesn’t eliminate the issue. And the older the egg, the more potent the bacteria. Frying a store-bought egg, and eating that meal, induces severe bodily reactions: diarrhea, high temperatures and throwing up.
“It’s like food poisoning,” Hall told The City Paper. “I can’t do what a lot of people do, and go out and order breakfast.”
But there is a solution to Hall’s situation. If eggs are fresh — as in, not older than 72 hours — Hall can eat eggs scrambled, poached or any other way without fear: The bacterium isn’t fully developed.
And so the answer for Hall was pretty simple. Hall, who grew up on a farm, had been raising six hens at his Madison home as a personal source for fresh eggs. Then, in September, Metro Codes effectively cracked down on the operation. Keeping chickens isn’t permitted at any residential properties smaller than five acres, and at urban-designated residences at all. The codes department, alerted to a nearby home housing upwards of 80 chickens, sniffed out the entire neighborhood. (As it turns out, contraband chickens aren’t uncommon.) After receiving a notice, Hall sold his hens and said goodbye to eggs.
“For me, it’s a necessity to be able to have my own chickens to be able to eat eggs,” Hall said.
Thus, in the weeks ahead, Hall will be one of many Nashvillians closely tracking a Metro Council ordinance — sponsored by an animal advocate, Inglewood-area Councilwoman Karen Bennett — that would legalize the housing of hens in urban dwellings, provided a host of sanitation, henhouse and other conditions are met. Depending on the acreage of a home, individuals could house between two and six chickens. To house domesticated hens, Davidson County residents would need to apply for an annual $25 permit with the Metro Health Department. Roosters, as well as the process of breeding chickens, would be prohibited.
“I’ve done a lot of research looking at what other sister cities have done, and what has worked for them, and what has not,” Bennett said, adding she believes her urban chicken proposal works well for Nashville. “It’s a clean, healthy way to have eggs in your diet. It’s a great food source, a renewable food source, and it’s a responsible way for residents to produce their own food.”
For the 40-member council, remarkably quiet following elections in August and September, Bennett’s backyard chicken bill could mark this council term’s first tussle. The ordinance — as is customary for all legislation — cleared the council’s first reading last week. It’s now headed to committee before undergoing greater scrutiny during the full council’s crucial second of three votes on Jan. 3 following a public hearing.
Its emergence reignites an old council debate. Just over two years ago, the council voted 20-15 to defeat a similar, but not identical, backyard chicken bill sponsored by Councilman Jason Holleman and former Councilwoman Kristine LaLonde. If the past is a sign of things to come, pro-chicken arguments — that the measure allows for a sustainable, renewable food source and fosters a more “green” lifestyle — will face some familiar counter claims: noise, potential nuisance issues, and codes enforcement.
“Don’t think my thoughts have changed much,” said At-large Councilman Tim Garrett, who opposed the proposal in 2009. “Having chickens, which are farm animals — I’m not sure there’s any difference between an urban chicken and a rural chicken — in a home, is just difficult for district council members to control. I could just see complaints coming when you have chickens in somebody’s backyard.
“Codes won’t be able to enforce it,” he added, referring to the bill’s litany of conditions, addressing things ranging from odor to henhouse setbacks.
Councilman Bruce Stanley also voted against the 2009 backyard chicken ordinance. It appears he’ll do so this time around, too.
“Our officials need to consider that of the 95 counties in Tennessee, there’s only four that are urban,” Stanley said. “As an urban county, we have an extreme population density. A number of people who have called me have informed me that these chickens would have an adverse impact on the surrounding environment — like the dogs and cats that live within a community, and the residential community itself.”
Stanley’s argument hits on what backyard chicken advocates say is a common stereotype — the perception such laws are relegated only to the countryside. In fact, they readily point out, cities far more urbanized than Nashville have laws allowing hens at homes. According to numbers posted on the local websitegreenerlivingnashville.com, 65 cities nationwide allow backyard chickens in some form or fashion, including New York, Chicago and Seattle as well as cities more comparable to Nashville, such as Austin, Texas, and Raleigh, N.C.
“I find it ironic that Nashville still cannot find a way to get urban chickens passed through when New York City was one of the first cities to do it,” said Hall. “You have how many more people there?”
Under Metro’s existing code, chickens are not permitted in any homes within the Urban Services District — which consists of the oldest parts of Nashville, largely the urban core — or within the suburban General Services District in lots smaller than five acres. Bennett’s bill would authorize the keeping of chicken in both districts, but on a limited basis, according to council attorney Jon Cooper, with six hens the limit in parcels greater than 10,237 feet.
The proposal comes with a litany of conditions that would require efforts from the codes department to enforce: Hens must be kept in “predator-proof” covered henhouses requiring building permits. Henhouses must be at least 10 feet from property lines and 25 from other houses. There can be “no perceptible” odor from the hens. Feed must be stored in containers with metal lids. No slaughtering of hens can take place on properties. Dead chickens would have to be removed “as quickly as possible” via the Metro Public Works Department. Finally, to ease concerns about cockfighting, the bill prohibits the training of chickens for amusement, sport or financial gain.
In fact, the proposed backyard chicken law would add some parameters to something many in Nashvillians are already doing — even though know they’re not supposed to.
“Our family has four hens,” said Inglewood resident Megan, who declined to reveal her last name, not wanting Metro officials to write her up. She said there are many more families like hers, willing to take the risk. “They’re really quiet. I don’t even know how many of my neighbors know. My next-door neighbor is thrilled we have them.
“For us they’re part of our overall garden plan, and they’re our pets, too,” Megan said. Each chicken has a name. “They’re the perfect animal for recycling biomass. When you have weeds from your garden, vegetable scraps that you would normally throw in the compost pile, you can feed leftovers to your hens. They very quickly break it down.”
Megan is part of a grassroots group, Urban Chicken Advocates of Nashville, which has rallied behind Bennett’s legislative efforts. UCAN’s Facebook page has 530 “likes.” The group has a catchy slogan: “Are you chicken? Now is the time to legalize urban laying hens.”
In this ongoing council battle — as opposed to 2009 — UCAN may have numbers on their side. Of the 20 council members who voted against the 2009 urban chicken bill, only eight remain on the council. Of the 15 who voted yes, 11 remain. Bennett recently picked up a co-sponsor in newly elected East Nashville Councilman Anthony Davis.
“A lot of folks over here in East Nashville are very pro-urban chickens,” Davis said. “There’s a lot of misconceptions out there about chickens in urban areas. People will talk about smell, and this and that, and a lot about what’s wrong with it. But there’s a lot of people who feel very strongly that it’s extremely sustainable to have these very small, low-impact animals in urban areas that provide sustainable eggs.”
Some who voted against the 2009 bill aren’t necessarily against it this year. Councilman Phil Claiborne, who pushed the no button back then, said he’s “ambivalent” about the urban chicken proposal: “I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other,” he said.
Forest Hills-area Councilman Carter Todd, another no-vote in the past, said his constituents seem “50-50.” He said he’s in an “information gathering” phase, but is leaning toward voting no.
“Some people have said it’s kind of a slippery slope,” Todd said. “Where do you stop? What other kind of animals could you have? ... If people do this, and they aren’t doing it correctly, it could be really difficult to enforce.”
Then there are 17 newly elected council members, folks like Councilman Steve Glover, diving into the chicken back-and-forth for the first time. His predecessor — former councilman and current state Rep. Jim Gotto — voted against the measure. Glover hasn’t “locked into a position.” As he put it, he still doesn’t understand the “full ramifications.”
“I want to know if it’s going to put another burden on the health department and on inspectors” Glover said. “If it’s going to cost more than it generates revenue-wise then that’s going to be a major concern for me.”