Urbavore's Dilemma: Denver's convoluted livestock laws lead to renegade chickens

Urbavore's Dilemma is an ongoing web series detailing city dwellers' commitment to urban homesteading. From May through September, Westword writer Joel Warner will get his hands dirty, covering everything from backyard chickens to front-lawn gardens, from greenhouses to co-ops and food-sharing. Check out the full series here.

Penelope Thron-Weber and her husband Bruce anxiously face the five somber-visaged officials who comprise Denver's Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals. Penelope may not look like a scofflaw with her schoolmarmish hair bun and quilted vest, but she's a lawbreaker nonetheless. That's why she's here -- to explain her wrongdoing and plead her case.

Her crime? Illicit chickens.

She's always loved to grow things. That's why she picked up six chirping chicks at a general store in Deer Trail last May. She loved the miraculous idea of a freshly-laid breakfast out back of her South Park Hill home every morning -- and she figured the egg-layers wouldn't be a bother. "They seemed like very innocent little creatures and I didn't think they would be any trouble," she explains.

She thought wrong. In March, she received an order from the city to get rid of the cluckers, which are not permitted in Denver's residential areas without a special permit from the city's community-planning-and-development department. She never applied for the permit, and someone must have blown the whistle. Part of the problem, she says now, might have been the cockle-doodle-dooing from her chick that grew up to be a rooster. She'd been told they were all hens, but there's always a chance gender assessment is wrong.

So this mild-mannered vegetarian killed the rooster herself. "I just figured it had to be done and it wasn't fair for anyone else to do it," she explains. And since the family dog got another chicken before the animals were properly segregated, that left her with four.

Some of her neighbors still had concerns. "The excellent fertilizer they produce stinks... They are farm animals. Let's keep it that way," wrote one of them in opposition when she applied for an official hen permit and appealed the chicken eviction letter to the Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals.

"People chose to live in Park Hill for a number of reasons but I venture to guess they do not move here expecting to be able to keep chickens or wake up one day to find chickens are their neighbor," wrote another resident named William Johnson -- who happens to be married to Denver councilwoman Marcia Johnson. ("I'm fairly neutral in my private opinion and public opinion on the matter," notes the councilwoman tactfully when reached by phone.)

And now Penelope awaits the verdict of the Board of Adjustment. The board considers chicken issues when a neighbor complains or a potential hen owner appeals a chicken-permit denial from the city, and it hadn't handled any such cases since 2005 -- until recently.

With city chicken-permit applications rising as urban-farm concepts take hold, the board's considered two chicken incidents lately; a month before Penelope's case, they rejected an appeal for an eight-bird operation in Capitol Heights. They're scheduled to hear two more chicken cases in the next few months, plus one involving miniature horses.

Penelope might have been able to able to avoid the whole process if she'd applied for the chicken permit when she was supposed to. But she says when she attempted to do so before buying her chicks, the procedure seemed ridiculously complex. Getting city approval for chickens or other small livestock requires inspections by both the community planning department and Denver Animal Care and Control, weeks or months of official notices and comment periods plus $150 in application fees -- not to mention another $70 in renewal fees annually. "They were such complicated instructions they didn't seem viable," Penelope says now.

Penelope's feathered act of civil disobedience isn't unique. Sitting in the audience is Dave Griffin, a Denver resident who heard about her case and came out to support a fellow chicken insurgent. Griffin, too, decided to dabble in renegade hens last year after he learned about the city's difficult chicken laws. His rebellion was cut short when a neighbor complained and, since he didn't think he had a shot at successfully appealing to the board of adjustment, he gave the hens away before Denver animal control confiscated them. He adds that he now knows lots of unlawful fowls. "I know of five houses in Capitol Hill that have chickens," he says. "All un-permitted."

While these folks are technically in the wrong, the city's forced them into this position, says James Bertini, a Denver doggie daycare owner who's helping lead a grassroots movement to get small livestock like chickens allowed without permits just like pets such as dogs, cats and even pigeons. "A property owner can have three large barking dogs that are aggressive to anyone who comes near and leave piles of smelly poop around and yet that is okay," says Bertini, whose set up a website for his cause called Denver Backyard Farms. "When a small, quiet, egg-laying hen has to have special permission, it's just not fair."

The city's new zoning code, a draft of which will be unveiled later this month, will clarify urban-agriculture issues in residential areas, says principal city planner Tina Axelrod. "Urban gardens," for example, will likely be a permitted use in residential areas, meaning for the first time entire lots can be officially used for urban farms (to the benefit of Denver Urban Gardens sites, which are currently often shoehorned into the "parks" category). But the new code won't resolve livestock concerns, says Axelrod. With strong feelings on both sides of the issue, that's a problem likely best left to city council.

Several council members, in fact, are already on it. Carla Madison, for example, recently put a chicken survey on her website, in which 31 of 49 responses so far are in favor of more lenient chicken rules. "I think chickens are a perfectly positive use in residential zones," says councilman Chris Nevitt, who, working with Madison, recently developed a proposal that would've allowed residents to have up to three hens without a permit.

But chicken proponents responded that three wasn't enough and would actually be a step backwards. Some Denverites, after all, have permits for six, ten and, in one case, 25 hens. "Three is trying to please everyone as chickens as pets, but we are talking about chickens as a food-production animal," says Lisa Rogers, head of the local organization Feed Denver: Urban Farms and Markets. "The main reason we are even talking about chickens is egg production. And if you have three chickens, you are getting maybe one egg a day."

So both sides agreed to hold off in order to gather best livestock practices from other municipalities and spread the word around town that chickens can be perfectly appropriate neighbors. That process could take a while, says Nevitt, who believes the issue might be revisited in a year.

In the meantime, the fate of Penelope's hens lies in the hands of the Board of Adjustment. Once the members have considered her tale, they issue a verdict: The hens can stay. Penelope is ecstatic, even considering the new rules the board imposes on her: She's got to move her coop to an isolated part of her yard plus keep no more than four fowl. And, of course, no more roosters.

Maybe the decision had something to do with the testimony of one of Penelope's elderly neighbors that day. Sure, he told the board, he could hear the birds -- but he liked it. The sound reminded him of growing up, of asking his grandfather why chickens clucked and being told a verse from the Bible: "This is the day which the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it."

"It's not an objectionable noise," he concludes. "I think it's a reminder of thoughts that are in danger of being forgotten in the urban setting."

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