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Fowl lovers unite to streamline Denver chicken laws

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Hear that? An angry "cluck" in the distance? The sound of a talon scratching anxiously in the dirt? That's because there's a chicken battle a-brewin' here in Denver. And yes, the feathers are gonna fly.

"The current process for obtaining a chicken permit in Denver is cumbersome and expensive and I want to change the law not just for my own personal benefit but also for the good of the Denver community," says Denver lawyer and would-be chicken owner James Bertini. He's so annoyed over the complexities of obtaining permission to keep fowls and other kinds of livestock here that he's launched a movement to push city council to simplify the process.

Bertini's crusade comes as urban chickens enjoy newfound popularity. "There is quite a movement," says Doug Kelley, director of Denver Animal Care and Control, which issues local chicken permits. "There has definitely been an upswing in permit requests. It seems like we have been getting at least a couple a week, if not more than that." In fact, so far this year, Denver Animal Care and Control has received eight permit requests, two more than they received for all of 2008.

Chalk it up to the hot new urban homesteading movement: the desire of city folk to break out of the industrial food complex -- and grow their own delicious food -- by turning their backyards into their own Green Acres, complete with vegetable gardens, compost bins and, yes, chicken coops. In the past year, Longmont and Fort Collins voted to allow chickens within city limits, and Durango officials are considering a similar move. While Denver's rules have long sanctioned chickens, the specific laws are so arcane and convoluted that last spring, when the public's interest in the matter was initially piqued by a "City Chicken" class offered at Denver Urban Gardens, officials weren't sure at first whether fowls were actually allowed.

While city agencies now seem to have their, ahem, ducks in a row on the matter, potential urban agriculturalists complain about the red tape and costs involved. That includes Sundari Kraft, who just received a livestock permit to have four hen chickens and two female Nigerian dwarf goats in her double-lot backyard in northwest Denver. To obtain that permit, which requires Denver Animal Care and Control to sign off on the space to be used, as well as for Community Planning and Development to approve a zoning exception, Kraft spent the past two months shuffling back and forth between city offices, posting multiple official notices in front of her house and waiting for inspectors to scrutinize her backyard and her posted notices. She was even told by a zoning employee that she'd technically need a second zoning permit if she wanted to build a chicken coop.

She decided to wait on that step and now, having shelled out $150 in application fees, she's received her livestock permit. But she's not through yet, since she's been required to post another notice telling her neighbors that, if they want, they can appeal her permit. Plus her permit only lasts for a year. She'll need to fork over another $70 in renewal fees annually.

"A lot of people who want to have chickens want to reduce food costs," says Kraft. "But this is becoming financially ridiculous. They are putting all these fees on it to make it not financially worthwhile to keep these animals."

Some residents have decided to forgo the official rigmarole and just keep rogue chickens. "Jack," for example, a Denverite who doesn't want to use his real name for fear of getting code enforcement officers on his tail, tried to get a permit last year but was told when he called the city's 311 information line that chickens weren't allowed except in industrial zones.

"That was enough to convince me to not to go through the process with people who didn't even know whether we could have chickens," says Jack over the phone, looking out his back window at the six scofflaw hens he now owns.

Jack, Kraft and others have joined forces with Bertini to encourage Denver officials to be more amenable not just to chickens, but also to urban agriculture and sustainable development in general as the city moves forward on a substantial revision of its zoning code. The group, which plans to meet for this first time this Saturday, March 21, would like to see chickens, goats and similar small animals be defined not as livestock that requires a special exception, but instead as a residential-use-by-right creates on par with dogs and cats. That would make Denver about as progressive as Colorado Springs, which allows up to ten chickens and four goats without a special permit.

"My chickens are just as much pets as dogs and cats are," says Jack, promising they're not smelly and much quieter than, say, the howling dog next door. Sure, roosters are a racket, but on that issue chicken lovers agree with the city's current policy: No cocks allowed.

It's a plan that may go through without much of a feathered fight. After all, the city council voted last November to allow residents to keep beehives in their backyards and officials seem to be similarly convivial to this proposal. "I'm for anything that makes the process easier, as long as it's effective," says Denver Animal Care and Control's Kelley.

"We are always supportive of discussions on how to improve the zoning code," adds Denver Community Planning and Development spokesman Julius Zsako. He expects a city council discussion "sometime in the near future" over whether chickens and similar creatures should be added to the city's use-by-right category, which currently allows for residents to have three dogs, five cats, two rabbits and 25 pigeons or a combination of five cats and dogs total.

That's good news for Bertini, who's holding off on adding chickens to his backyard tableau until the city acquiesces to his demands. As for how many hens he plans to raise, all he'll says is, "I don't want to count my chickens before they hatch."

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