Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Many of us no longer live in a part of the state that we can call rural. More than half of the state’s population now lives in the extended metro Atlanta area. Add in those that live in Georgia’s other cities and those that live on Georgia’s farms and forests are now a distinct minority. Those who remain in rural environments are quite used to having various forms of livestock on or near their property and less familiar with stringent zoning codes. It may seem odd for some to discover a fight that is now going on within many of Georgia’s suburbs. Apparently, chickens are a problem.
The Cobb County Commission voted last night to amend its zoning ordinances to allow for chickens on lots of less than two acres. This did not happen on a whim, but after a battle which began between one man and his neighbors back in the Spring of 2010.
Joseph Pond built a chicken coop in his half acre back yard and then discovered that Cobb County didn’t allow such things. He’s since found out a lot about zoning laws, county government, and civic involvement.
In 2011 he founded the Backyard Chickens Alliance of Cobb County to help with awareness of the issue and build grassroots support for the change. He’s attended many commission meetings and hearings. His numbers grew.
He also did his research. He is quick to note that there are no documented cases where chickens are noted to have diminished property values, a key fact on which zoning restrictions are usually based. He cites statistics that show 10 chickens will produce less waste than 2 dogs.
He’s been polite, but firm and persistent. When votes were cast Tuesday night, he prevailed with a 3-2 vote that now allow a pathway to chickens in the backyard.
Yet there will still be more paperwork, more money, and more approvals necessary before he and others that wish to keep chickens will be done. The ordinance requires filing for a variance, paying a $150 fee, gaining approval first from the zoning board of appeals and then finally from the full Cobb County board of commissioners. Approved residents will be allowed up to one hen (no roosters) for every 5,000 square feet of their lot.
That is Cobb County’s solution. It is not only a Cobb County problem, however. In 2011, Paula Deen and one of her neighbors ran into a similar problem in their exclusive Wilmington Island subdivision in Savannah. Her house and her neighbor’s house were said to be in a “non-agricultural zone”.
The real story here isn’t so much about chickens as it is about civic involvement. Pond was not exactly greeted warmly by Cobb County officials when he sought the change in the zoning law. Many of his supporters were surprised at the victory on Tuesday night. But much of the key to the victory was because of the fact that there were supporters of his plan. People who spent their time educating their neighbors and showing up at meetings.
There was little if any organized opposition to Pond and his group’s proposed change. Armed with facts and demonstrating determination and persistence, the alliance changed the perception of chickens while essentially wearing down officials who saw few numbers speaking up to maintain the status quo.
It is a classic story of civic involvement around an issue that affects few of us, but for those who take the time to care they have made a difference in their community. Those who get involved or even just show up have an advantage.
And frankly, that’s how our system is supposed to work. Local control should mean that. Decisions on how we are governed should be made at the lowest level possible so that members of each community can decide what laws and regulations they will live under subject to broader freedoms and restrictions provided in our constitutions.
Most of us spend our political time and attention arguing over what the President and Congress should do. Those that want to enact change that directly affects them spend their time and energy influencing city councils, county commissions, and school boards.