Planning to Disaster: The Zoning Apparat vs. Paula Deen’s Chickens

Those who know me are aware that one of the two weird — so I’ve been told — policy issues I’m obsessed with is urban homesteading (the other is bunker fuel — see here, here, and here). Urban homesteading is a back-to-the-land, “buy local” movement. Essentially, it’s when green yuppie types play farmer in the city (complete with ironic hipster overalls!), which includes but is not limited to: beekeeping, aquaculture (paging Karl Hess), and raising poultry.

Keeping animals for slaughter, milk, and eggs in the city used to be quite common, which is why big-city codes across the country have specific provisions that explain exactly how they must be housed or moved. In Washington, D.C., for instance, “Horned cattle may be led singly by a rope or halter through any of the streets in the District.” While there are few people living in dense urban areas with the time, money, or land to raise cattle, building a chicken coop and keeping chickens is certainly more doable for many. Zoning now often stands in their way.

But zoning, which originally existed only in large, dense cities, has since moved out to the suburbs, small towns, and rural areas. Enter celebrity TV chef Paula Deen, most famous for drowning anything remotely edible in butter. Ms. Deen keeps chickens on her property in Savannah, Georgia. In fact, she rescued the birds from the county after they had been used as canaries during the West Nile virus scare. Her neighbors were aware, and indeed many people across the country were aware of her chickens, as they had been featured on her TV show. But it turns out that Ms. Deen’s property is zoned for non-agriculture uses. Recently, a zoning administrator decided to crack down on chickens in non-agriculture zones and send stern letters to other residents:

The Lynes received a letter in early June from Chatham County Zoning Administrator Robert Sebek citing two violations: They built the chicken coop without a permit and they were “keeping chickens in a zoning district that does not permit that use.”

Only properties zoned agricultural are allowed to keep chickens, said Gregori Anderson, director of Building Safety and Regulatory Services for the county. Anderson is Sebek’s supervisor; Sebek was not available Monday.

“This initial violation came in through a neighborhood complaint,” Anderson said. “The zoning that allows chickens is the agricultural zoning district, R-A, (the Lynes’ property is zoned R-1-C) so the gentlemen was cited. He gave us the names of other folks (who keep chickens), which we are pursuing. If they’re in violation they’ll get the same notice.”

Unless there is a legitimate sound or smell nuisance, a perfect world would permit anyone to keep chickens wherever they live. This is a major problem with zoning: when it starts to move into specifics, rather than merely setting density requirements (which is also bad, but less bad). It ignores common law principles that could easily resolve problems as they arise, and instead prescribes use, form, and other aspects. This not only detracts from a property owner’s satisfaction, it also provides a venue for neighbors to blow-up their personal differences with one another into political ordeals.

People who would most likely typically align with technocratic progressive politics now find themselves staring down the very land-use policies that were long championed within their movement. Planning simply does not promote social welfare; it degrades it and disproportionately harms the poor. I wish Ms. Deen, the greeniac urban homesteaders, and others who engage in non-traditional land uses the best, but hopefully they will begin to understand that the well-intentioned policies of the past were terrible ideas when initially conceived and are now even worse as political anachronisms.