Urban chicken supporters got another sign of encouragement Monday when a Bakersfield City Council committee approved a proposal to allow city residents to keep chickens in their backyards.
Right now, the city doesn't allow people living in the residential area zoned as R-1 to have chickens in their yards. That one-family dwelling designation covers most of the city south of the Kern River.
But the three members of the Legislative and Litigation Committee voted Monday to send a proposal to change that to the full city council for consideration. The council will take up the matter at a meeting sometime in 2013.
If approved, the ordinance would allow property owners in R-1 zones to keep up to three female chickens in a backyard pen or coop if they apply for a permit from the Planning Department and also get written permission from the owners of all the adjacent properties. The chickens would have to be kept in a pen and not be allowed to roam, according to the proposal.
Pens would have to be at least 50 feet from any other house.
The proposal to require Planning Department approval "allows people a way to legally maintain three chickens .. but it (also) provides the city with some enforcement protections," said Councilwoman Sue Benham, the committee's chair.
Benham and the other two members of the committee, Councilmembers Jacquie Sullivan and Rudy Salas, chose the permit option rather than a looser "by-right" option that would've set the same rules for keeping chickens but wouldn't have required Planning Department approval.
Kimbrah Gonzalez, whose family keeps about 20 chickens at its home in the county, said she was disappointed that the committee didn't choose the "by-right" option but said the recommendation was encouraging nonetheless.
"I'm still concerned that the permitting process will be cost-prohibitive," especially for poor families, she said.
Planning Director Jim Eggert said after the meeting that the cost for applying for a permit hasn't been set, but that city staff are trying to keep it fairly low. The one-time cost of applying for and getting a permit would be somewhere between $60 and $150, he said.
Eggert said the cost would have to be enough to cover city staff time to review an application, "but not make it to where people would avoid coming in and then we'd have to deal with it on a complaint basis."
The committee's decision came despite concerns from city staff that allowing chickens in Bakersfield could create an enforcement headache.
There were 52 instances in the first 10 months of 2012 when city staff had to investigate complaints about chickens in residential areas, up from 36 cases in all of 2011, said Community Development Director Doug McIsaac.
"It is already becoming an issue and seems to be increasing," he said.
If chickens were allowed in residential areas, city staff would have to respond to more complaints, he said. The new ordinance wouldn't allow residents to keep roosters, which, with their crowing, are louder than their female counterparts. But a chicken's sex is difficult to determine in chicks, McIsaac said.
Other concerns were that people would buy chickens "on a lark" and soon neglect to properly care for them.
Six people have contacted the city to voice support for allowing chickens, but 10 called or emailed to oppose the idea, McIsaac said.
Chickens currently are allowed in three areas in the city limits: those zoned as 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.
Residents of unincorporated Kern may have up to a dozen chickens in normal residential lots. The chickens have to be in a pen 30 feet from any bedroom window.