Walking on eggshells?

A chorus of peeping chicks greeted visitors to the Ashland Grange Co-op, while kids and adults crowded around metal tubs filled with the tiny, fluffy birds.

During just one week this month, the Ashland grange sold 400 chicks. A recent poultry-raising seminar at the store on A Street attracted 50 people, said Sid Thurnbauer, store manager.

"It was standing-room only," he said.

As people embrace sustainability and the local food movement, interest in backyard chickens is booming.

Ashland officials are looking at loosening city rules that bar many residents in town from keeping chickens. At the same time, they have to try and ensure that the birds don't become a nuisance and create noise, hygiene and aesthetic problems.

City Council members began talks on chicken issues during a March 6 meeting and likely will take up the topic again on April 3. They will not be talking about it at a council meeting on Tuesday this week because the city legal department is still reviewing the issue.

Mayor John Stromberg, who has raised chickens and other animals in the past, said city officials have no idea how many people will start to raise chickens if the rules are loosened.

At the March 6 meeting, pro-chicken people spoke in favor of rule changes, but neighbors who might be negatively impacted did not come to speak out, he said.

Stromberg said that noise and aesthetics could become issues.

"We have a community where we've achieved a wonderful quality of the built environment and how the town fits together. It's an important part of what makes Ashland desirable and a pleasant place to visit," he said.

On the other hand, backyard chickens help localize food production — an important benefit, said Stromberg, who has championed sustainability while in office.

At the grange, Thurnbauer said raising chickens is a good experience for people of all ages. He said customers who buy chickens for meat or eggs want to know where their food is coming from.

Local resident Michele Pereira was recently perusing the chick selection at the grange with her two daughters, ages 3 and 6. She had read up on chicken-keeping and was looking forward to trying out "chicken-tractoring" — a method of rotating chickens around a garden so they eat insects and weeds while fertilizing the soil.

Pereira said she was glad to hear the City Council may loosen rules on chickens in town.

"I think it's great. We should do as much as we can to encourage people to produce their own food," she said.

Pereira said she has a large yard and doesn't think that chickens will bother her neighbors.

Changes to city rules could help legalize many backyard chicken coops. Currently, chicken coops must be kept at least 75 feet away from neighboring homes. Given typical lot sizes in Ashland, that makes it impossible for most residents to keep chickens legally, according to city staff.

Proposed rule changes would allow chicken coops to be within 20 feet of neighboring homes.

One resident, who wished to remain anonymous, has a flock of egg-laying chickens in her backyard. Her coop and the chickens' fenced enclosure are too close to a neighbor's home to meet current city standards.

"I'm hoping the new rules will put me in compliance. We produce a lot of our own food," said the woman, who also has a garden, fruit trees, berry bushes and other plants.

City council members are still grappling with whether there should be a limit on the number of chickens per household. Suggestions have ranged from an absolute limit of five birds, to allowing people to have up to 20 based on their yard size.

No matter what, roosters will not be allowed because of their crowing, and chickens will have to be kept in coops at night to discourage predators.

The woman who sought to remain anonymous said most of the neighbors on her block are OK with her having chickens — and several have their own flocks. But she fears that one neighbor may turn her in to the city government over her animals. She said she suspects he is actually unhappy that she has replaced her front lawn with garden beds.

City government workers don't actively hunt down violators of the town's chicken rules. But the city does check into possible problems when neighbors file complaints, said Ashland Assistant Planner Amy Gunter.

People can file complaints by filling out a form on the city's website at www.ashland.or.us. They can be anonymous if they wish.

Gunter said neighbors sometimes complain that chickens are too close to their homes, and they want the 75-foot buffer zone to be enforced. Complaints are usually handled by the Ashland Police Department.

Fines for breaking city rules on chickens can run about $260, but police officers try to resolve the situation without writing tickets, Gunter said.

"Police try to mediate and get the neighbors to work it out. Typically people are required to move their chickens. We had one situation where a lady was given a few months to find a new home for her chickens," Gunter said.

After chicks begin to grow into adults, their keepers sometimes discover that some are roosters. Figuring out the sex of a chick can be difficult, said local residents who raise chickens.

The Ashland Grange Co-Op tries to sell all-female chicks, but can't guarantee the sex of chicks. The store does not accept returns on chicks and chickens, Thurnbauer said.

Gunter said it's not uncommon for the city government to field complaints about crowing roosters.

"People don't want to complain, but when it keeps happening at 3 a.m., it's so disruptive to the peace," she said.

Police usually work with an inadvertent rooster owner so that the person has time to find a new home for the bird, Gunter said.

Alternately, owners can kill and eat roosters, local chicken raisers said.

Gunter said neighbors sometimes complain about unhygienic conditions, but those complaints are often tied in with concerns about an entire property being unkempt.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control warns that chicks, chickens and eggs can carry salmonella bacteria. Bacteria is also shed in chicken droppings. People should wash their hands with soap and water after handling the birds, eggs or anything the birds have been in contact with.

As for the clucking of hens, chicken raisers said they are about as loud as people talking softly. They do tend to keep up a fairly constant chatter, and hens let out a squawk when they lay eggs.

Gunter said people should be considerate about coop placement even if city officials allow coops to be 20 feet from neighboring homes.

"Be respectful of where your neighbor's bedrooms are located. If you wouldn't want it outside your bedroom, don't put it outside your neighbor's bedroom," she said. "Be conscious of how it impacts others."

Resident Kim Blackwolf, who has four egg-laying hens, said her neighbors either don't mind her chickens or like them. She also has some tips for maintaining good relations.

"Being friendly with your neighbors and giving them eggs once in a while is good," she said.

Blackwolf said if people clean up after their chickens, there is no bad smell or unkempt appearance. She said that one 40-pound dog produces as much feces as 10 chickens — and barking dogs are much more of a nuisance than clucking chickens.

Last year, a few of her chicks turned out to be roosters, and she had to dispatch the birds when they started crowing.

"You can't have roosters in town. I agree with that," Blackwolf said.

She said she hopes the City Council will not put an arbitrary limit on the number of chickens a person can keep. Some people have laying hens, plus chickens that are too young to lay eggs yet and retired hens that have stopped producing eggs.

Predation can be a problem, especially from skunks and raccoons, so secure nighttime coops are a necessity. Chickens that run loose in a yard can also eat the lawn and dig up flower beds, Blackwolf said.

Chicks need to be kept indoors under heat lamps. They create a fluffy mess when they shed their down to grow their first feathers, she said.

On the online Connect Ashland backyard chicken conversation board, people with chickens also have discussed problems with chickens hen-pecking each other and attacking newcomers to the flock.

Blackwolf said it used to be normal in America for people to keep backyard chickens.

"A lot of people who are raising chickens in Ashland are not square with the law. My hope is that we can create rules for urban homesteading that help people grow food in a reasonable way that isn't messy, dirty or a nuisance to the neighbors," she said. "It's not going to go away. It's not a fad."

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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