By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
Homeowners at Sundance Ranch are allowed to raise cows and horses on their larger acreage lots. But when Pamela Caird and her husband quietly started a backyard chicken coop, a livestock they saw the cheapest and most plausible, the property owners association threatened legal action.
Sundance Ranch, like almost every other subdivision in Liberty Hill, forbids chickens in their housing provisions.
Caird is not alone in the desire to raise chickens. As the backyard chicken movement comes to Liberty Hill on the back of tidal growth, its proponents are coming in conflict with neighborhood ordinances forbidding poultry. Homeowner associations have expressed a concern about the difficulty of enforcing maintenance on the chicken coops, which can become unhygienic and a nuisance, and the divisiveness they can sow between neighbors.
The movement has snowballed in recent years, however, especially among an urban and well-educated demographic.
Slightly over 4 percent of backyard chicken raisers in the United States are involved in agriculture, and 70 percent had only kept their chickens for more than five years, according to a 2014 survey from Poultry Science.
Additionally, 67 percent of backyard chicken-keepers in the U.S. hold a college degree, and over half of those graduates have earned an additional graduate or professional degree.
Among the top reasons for keeping chickens were for home food use (95 percent), gardening partners (63 percent), pets (57 percent), or a combination of these. Owners thought that eggs/meat from their chickens were more nutritious (86 percent), safer to consume (84 percent), and tasted better (95 percent) than store-bought products, and also that the health and welfare of their chickens was better (95 percent) than on commercial farms.
In discussing her own interest in chickens, Caird echoed the above statements with a little more local context. When she and her husband moved to Liberty Hill from Brooklyn, New York, a large part of the area’s appeal was the idea of a countryside living, she says.
And for Caird, the daughter of an agriculture teacher, that meant raising animals.
“I’m not going to jump right in and buy a horse or a cow for thousands of dollars,” she says. “For starting out my backyard farm dreams, chickens are something that’s actually affordable.”
At one point, Caird actually did have a chicken coop in her yard.
In 2013, another individual in Sundance Ranch petitioned the Property Owners’ Association for a change to her neighborhood’s Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions, or CC&Rs. By that time, Caird says, at least three households had been discreetly raising their own chickens for years. The petition to the Board gained what she called an “overwhelming amount” of signatures.
“I was told by one of the members of the Board that it was basically a done deal. It was going to get passed,” Caird says. “So we jumped the gun.”
She and her husband bought a coop and nearly a dozen baby chicks.
When the mail-in vote came, however, only 72 homeowners voted. While the ballots found a 2-1 ratio in support, the CC&Rs require any change to the housing conditions to find approval from 67 percent of all homeowners. At the time, there were 107 homeowners in the neighborhood on CR 200.
“It’s like amending the U.S. Constitution,” Caird says, “but harder.”
Caird continued to keep the chickens until a complaint was filed against her. She does not know who the complainant was, as she says her two neighbors were “completely fine with it.”
Determined to win back her chickens, which were moved to a friend’s property, Caird hatched a survey to convince the POA to hold another election.
She collected statistics from the USDA and Texas AgriLife Extension Service to dispel what she saw as some of the most commonly cited reasons opposing backyard chickens, and put them on a website called hensontheranch.org. Though the site was specifically aimed at providing news on her own subdivision, she made it general enough to apply to others seeking changes in their neighborhoods.
Properly maintained, Caird says, chickens are not the smelly nuisance that many might believe them to be. And the iconic sound of the rooster caw? Not a problem at all. Hens don’t need to be fertilized to lay eggs. She says the only sound hens make is an “egg song”, which she even tried to find a decibel count for.
The problem, she says, was that the Sundance Ranch Board was reluctant to even hold an election until it could be demonstrated that a vote would win.
For months, Caird polled her neighborhood. The final count saw 77 percent of survey respondents say they would “definitely” like to see their subdivision’s code be amended to allow hens. 12 percent felt strongly against it.
But 54 percent of homeowners did not respond to her survey, again failing to meet a hypothetical election’s necessary majority.
Part of the problem, Caird said, is that there is no simple way to even distribute a vote. The challenge of issuing an election in the first place then strongly discourages any “grassroots actions.”
Board members did not respond to the newspaper’s requests for comment.
The development firm that wrote Sundance Ranch’s CC&Rs, however, has a different perspective on the issue.
“It’s about property values,” said William Hinckley, president of the Lookout Group. “If everyone was a good neighbor, it would be no problem.
However, “it is nearly impossible to monitor things like sanitation, disposal of dead poultry and the introduction of noisy roosters.”
He said that some would abuse the privilege, and keep excessive chickens or erect “ramshackle coops”, which would spark disputes between neighbors. He added that in the past the firm has seen some households forget to feed their chickens when they go on vacation.
Hinckley provided the qualification that, if a HOA approved and enforced ordinances limiting the allowed number of chickens, and specified the location and design of coops, “chickens would be great.”
Sundance Ranch is far from the only subdivision prohibiting chickens.
Clearwater Ranch, whose CC&Rs were also written by the Lookout Group, has a similar provision, as does Stonewall Ranch, Orchard Ridge, and Santa Rita Ranch.
Rancho Santa Fe and Durham Park were the only subdivisions found to allow chickens. There, coops must be out of sight from neighbors. They must have a design approved by a committee, and must be clean of refuse, insects and wastes at all times.
But there might be hope for backyard chicken-raisers that the tide is turning. In recent months, state and municipal legislation has increasingly begun to sway toward their side.
A bill passed by the Texas Senate last month would require cities to allow up to six chickens at residential properties. The bill would still allow cities to ban roosters and mandate coop requirements.
The City of Austin this spring began offering free chicken-keeping classes and a $75 rebate on new coops, after loosening enforcement of an ordinance limiting fowls to 10 per household.
As reported by the Dallas Morning News, Irving’s Parks & Recreation Department has loosened enforcement of restrictions on livestock “in recognition of changing demographics.”
And even in 2012, Liberty Hill’s elected city government expressed a reluctance in enforcing the city ordinance limiting chickens to two per household.
“We have talked before about the ordinance not being appropriate for situations we have here,” said former Mayor Michele Murphy in an article in The Independent. “We had livestock in town when we incorporated.”
But government bodies and concerned homeowners associations are not the only opponents of backyard chicken raising.
Kelsey Eberly, a lawyer with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said a chief worry is what happens to the hen after they are no longer laying eggs.
“Backyard chicken owners have to be ready to make a commitment to the birds for years long after they stop producing eggs,” she said. “If they’re more thinking of adopting a chicken, that’s better. But a lot of people get into it thinking about the eggs.”
Hens lay less eggs as they get older, and most breeds effectively stop being productive after five or seven years. It is common for hens in backyard settings to live eight to 10 years, though it is not unheard of for some to live up to 20.