New rules permitting backyard chickens throughout most of Sarasota County are finally flying the coop.
After more than four years incubating, the County Commission on Tuesday supported rules that would allow up to four hens to be kept on properties within single-family residential areas.
The commission voted unanimously Tuesday to begin the public hearing process on the new rules. Two workshops are scheduled on Aug. 2 and 3 to discuss the proposed changes before they head to public hearings and then to the planning and county commissions in the following two months.
The issue of permitting backyard chickens has scrambled county leaders since early 2012, shortly after the city of Sarasota changed its rules to allow residents to keep up to four hens, but no roosters, in a coop on a single-family property.
CLUCK, a local advocacy group that helped craft the city rules, has pushed since to convince the county to adopt a similar stance but the rules repeatedly stalled amid concerns about how to enforce the rules and potential health concerns.
The proposed rules largely follow the city's and prohibit roosters, the slaughter of hens, and the sale of eggs or other related products onsite. They also establish rules regarding the type, size and placement of coops on properties and standards regarding odor and the prevention of rodents and other pests, according to the proposal.
Any unwanted chickens could be taken to the county's Health and Human Services Mosquito Control Division for utilization in its Sentinel Chicken Program, through which officials use chickens to monitor mosquito-borne illnesses, according to the proposal.
The county also will consider delaying the rules' effective date until the beginning of next year to give area homeowners associations time to consider whether they would like to update their rules to prohibit or restrict backyard chickens, zoning administrator Donna Thompson said. A review of the rules is planned in 2018.
Only commissioner Christine Robinson expressed problems with the proposed rules and admonished county staff for not hosting the workshops before Tuesday's vote. However, at least five more public meetings are planned on the rules, including the two workshops and required public hearings.
To date, the proposed rules have received widespread support, with more than 1,400 county residents signing a CLUCK petition, but it was two new residents and long-time chicken owners who stole the spotlight Tuesday morning.
Mary Jane Bailey, 12, and her little sister Vivian, 10, excited the commission with stories about the lessons learned and genuine fun they've had raising hens for the past six years.
“They're so cute,” Vivian said. “They make the best pets. They learn and you can teach them tricks and they're so fun.”
“Sometimes one will just curl up in your lap,” Mary Jane added.
The sisters left 11 hens when they recently moved from Santa Barbara, California, and want to raise a new flock when they settle into a home here. Those hens - including “Blondie,” “Daisy,” “Tacky,” “Lucy” and “Midnight” - are now cared for by a family they trust whose son was in Mary Jane's class (although “you can never trust a boy from math class,” Vivian teased).
For now, the uncertainty about where the county might allow backyard chickens is part of the reason the family has yet to buy a new home here, said Jeff Bailey, the girls' father.
“The 'Chicken Channel' is the best,” said Mary Jane of the family's tongue-in-cheek name for the fun they have watching and playing with their chickens. “I really, really want us to get a new flock here. I hope they let us.”