To roost or not to roost?
That was the question members of the Bakersfield Legislative and Litigation Committee considered Tuesday -- whether to allow city residents to keep chickens in their backyards.
The topic is sure to ruffle feathers as it progresses. Phil Burns, the city's building director, said allowing chickens in Bakersfield city limits could bring problems of odors, diseases passed between bird species and rodents and flies attracted to chicken feed.
"The clucks, chirps, crowing -- all those things can be a potential (problem)," he said.
"What happens when the chickens stop laying eggs?" Burns asked, wondering aloud if that would cause the city's chicken population to run wild.
Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan joked that those chickens would likely end up in a stew.
Burns said his division received 32 complaints about chickens and roosters in the city in 2011 and 35 already in 2012.
But there also may be a lot of people crowing in support of allowing chickens in the city.
Councilwoman Sue Benham said urban farming -- city dwellers growing their own food or getting eggs from their own chickens, for example -- is growing in popularity.
"There is a real trend in this direction," Benham said. "People want control over their food supply" and are showing a preference for locally sourced food, she said.
Councilman Rudy Salas is the third member of the committee.
San Diego allows city residents to keep chickens (and up to two miniature goats), and Santa Rosa officials are considering allowing chickens, too. Bakersfield city staff looked at those two cities for a possible model for a Bakersfield ordinance.
But those ordinances are too new (San Diego passed its in January) to show what problems could hatch, according to a memo from the city attorney's office.
And if Bakersfield were to open the gates to city chickens, it'd require a lot of outreach and education of the public on the new rules, said City Attorney Virginia Gennaro.
""It does seem to be something that ... urban environments are now considering," Gennaro said. But to change the city's rules "would be a major shift" in city policy, after years of enforcing the current ban on urban chickens.
Chickens are allowed in three zones in city limits: residential suburban, agricultural or residential holding (undeveloped areas to be "held" for future urban development). In those zones, chickens have to be in a pen or yard, and pens have to be 50 feet away from any dwelling.
But in a residential area zoned as R-1, they're not allowed. The one-family dwelling designation covers most of the city south of the Kern River.
An exception may be allowed under a case-by-case conditional use permit, Burns said. But applying for that permit and undergoing a public hearing so neighbors can weigh in is typically a $2,000 process, one that doesn't necessarily result in urban chicken amnesty, Burns said. The cost usually dissuades people, he said.
Residents of unincorporated Kern County can have up to a dozen chickens in normal residential lots. The chickens have to be in a pen 30 feet from any bedroom window.
Bakersfield resident Hannah Austin brought photos of her chickens to the meeting. She said she hopes to move two of her chickens, Nirvana and Jazphr (pronounced like "Jasper"), from Santa Rosa, where she was living, to Bakersfield, but wants to do it without running a-fowl of the rules. Austin said she lives on La Mirada Drive, by Centennial Park.
"I love them," she said of her Ameraucana and Mille Fleur Bantam chickens. "When they stop giving eggs, I will still love them. They're my pets."
Austin contacted Benham about whether her chickens could be allowed in the city, and the issue came to the committee.
Benham asked whether Austin has had any complaints about her chickens.
"It's like keeping any animal," Austin said. "You want to clean up after them. ... The chickens do not make a peep at night." Unless, of course, a fox is afoot, she said.
Douglas McIsaac, the city's new community development director, suggested council members consider an administrative use permit process, a step down from the more extensive conditional use permit process. It would require only that immediate neighbors be notified if a resident wanted to house chickens, rather than residents in a wider radius.
McIsaac oversees the building and planning divisions and economic and community development.
In the end, the council members agreed to pursue the idea and asked city staff to look further into the chicken laws in San Diego and Santa Rosa and into McIsaac's administrative use permit idea. The committee will take up the issue again at its next meeting, scheduled for Oct. 22.