Backyard chicken flocks ruffling some town feathers

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Lynn Cooper and her son, Robert, with Sir Reginald the rooster. (Staff Photo)

By SHELLY WILKISON

When she whistles for them, they come running. And when they see that she has the bowl of popcorn, it becomes a mad dash for the finish line.

Lynn Cooper admits she has “spoiled” her chickens. Sir Reginald, the proud rooster of the flock who watches over the hens, “enjoys having his wattle rubbed” when Ms. Cooper comes home from work every day. When she sits with them outside, they climb into her lap to be petted, much like a dog or cat.

Since 1997, Ms. Cooper has lived on a two-thirds acre lot in Purser Estates. After being diagnosed with lymphoma and becoming more aware of the importance of a healthy diet and safe food, Ms. Cooper said she decided last year to pursue a childhood interest and grow her own eggs.

Over time, she developed an attachment to her 13 chickens who have become more like pets to her than a hobby.

Robert Cooper, who moved in with his mother after she was diagnosed with cancer, said “it broke her heart when she learned that someone had filed a complaint against her (with the City of Liberty Hill), and that she might have to get rid of the chickens.”

The complainant attached a copy of the city ordinance that limits the number of chickens a resident can have in a city backyard.

Police Chief Randy Williams said the complainant, who requested anonymity, made no mention of any noise or smell — complaints sometimes associated with chicken pens. Instead, it was about the number of birds on the property.

The current city ordinance restricts residents to two chickens, regardless of the size of the lot, and requires that a pen be located 100 feet from a neighbor’s property line.

Williams agrees that the ordinance is too restrictive, and believes that was not the intent. He said he thinks it was “miswritten” in that the smaller number was intended to refer to fur-bearing animals, which are addressed in the same section.

“I’m a chicken person myself and I don’t know that hens would even pose a problem if they were penned next to a bedroom window,” he said.

Williams said he had been to the Coopers’ home and found no reason to be concerned as plenty of space was provided for the chickens. He said there was no odor and conditions were clean.

Ms. Cooper said she had no knowledge of the city ordinance when she started her flock a year ago. There were neighbors down the street with chickens and roosters, even horses and pigs, so she thought it was okay. She said no one has ever complained before about her chickens.

Williams said enforcement of the ordinance is complaint-driven. Individuals who may be in violation will not be contacted by the city unless a complaint is filed.

A similar complaint was filed about the same time regarding Ms. Cooper’s neighbor across the street who has goats.

Joe Carpenter, who also addressed the Council Monday, said he has two goats on his half-acre lot.

“They don’t bark or bite. They were raised on a bottle,” he said. “They are pets and they are old. I’d like them to live out the rest of their lives in Liberty Hill.

His wife, Micky Carpenter, told the Council that her family had the goats before the city incorporated.

Linda LaCount, a neighbor of the Carpenters and the Coopers, urged the Council to “review the ordinance to reflect changing citizen interests.”

“I’d like the Council to take into consideration that this is general practice. There is a great movement across the country in regard to reviving backyard agriculture,” said Ms. Cooper.

“Eggs from backyard chickens are healthier in contrast to factory farm eggs,” she said. “They have 25 percent more Vitamin E, one-third more Vitamin A and 75 percent more beta carotene, have significantly more omega-3 fatty acids and are tastier,” she said.

The Coopers say they are not “mass producing chickens. This is a sustainable food source and we are sharing eggs with friends and family,” she said. Every morning, she picks up the eggs.

Ms. Cooper said after the complaint was filed against her, she began researching ordinances in other cities. She said most that she found, including Austin, Fort Worth, Round Rock and Leander, required only 50 feet separate the pen from the adjacent property line. The same cities had limits on the number of fowl that ranged from 10 to as many as 50.

The Coopers have a pen within their backyard where the chickens stay while they are at work. When they get home, Ms. Cooper lets them into the backyard and they return to the pen on their own when it gets dark. While she has not clipped their wings because she says it makes them defenseless against predators, she says they have never gotten out of the backyard onto someone else’s property.

“They bring me comfort,” she said. “I sit outside and watch them, they eat out of my hands.

“I moved here so I could have more space and not be right up against a neighbor, so I could have pets and chickens if I wanted to. I grew up spending summers on my aunt and uncle’s farm where I took care of the chickens and livestock, and tended the garden. It was what I looked forward to most. This takes me back to my rural past, and that brings me comfort,” she said.

Ms. Cooper said she wishes she knew who complained about the chickens.

“I would like to share a dozen egges with them so they could share the wealth,” she said.

Ms. Cooper said the chickens keep her yard free of insects, and allows her to avoid using pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.

“Chickens are excellent garden workers, organic pesticiders, herbiciders, fertilizers, compost creators and top soil enhancers,” she said. “They love to eat many weeds and serve as post-harvest garden bed cleaners. They are also great biorecyclers.”

Further, they are quieter and cleaner than most dogs, she said.

She provided some research to the Council Monday that showed more major cities are encouraging residents to keep small urban flocks of laying hens and are promoting sustainable living projects. Some of those promoting urban agriculture included Austin, Leander, San Antonio, Montgomery, AL; and Cincinnati, Ohio.

“We have talked before about the ordinance not being appropriate for situations we have here,” said Mayor Michele “Mike” Murphy. “We had livestock in town when we incorporated.”

While the Council took no action on the matter Monday, the Mayor asked Council members to review the ordinance and bring back suggestions for change when the panel meets again later this month.

In the meantime, Williams said city residents with chickens or other livestock already have the ability to obtain a variance to the ordinance.

The City may grant a specific use permit for the chickens, goats or other livestock, he said.

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