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What the cluck? Old Odessa code bans chickens, but mom seeks change

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Posted: Saturday, April 25, 2015 5:30 am

Amanda LaPlante returned home from vacation a few weeks ago to a surprise in her backyard — one of the four hens she had been raising from chicks started to crow.

The vendor who sold the chicks to her, she determined, mistakenly sexed the baby birds a few months prior. Since it would not produce the eggs she wanted and it would probably prove a nuisance, and LaPlante said she immediately made plans to send the rooster to live with a friend in the county.

But a neighbor beat her to it. He called Animal Control to complain about the crowing, and soon after, LaPlante discovered a stern voicemail from someone who identified himself as an animal control officer:

“. . . You have two geese, or ducks I should say. You have three chickens. Ma’am, you cannot have that. And you will not have that. If they are not gone by 8 a.m., no by 7, no by 8 a.m. tomorrow, you will receive citations. I will be there first thing in the morning tomorrow, and if they are not gone you will be receiving citations ma’am. That is a guarantee. Alright thank you for your time . . .”

LaPlante said she cried. So did her 7-year-old daughter, Ainsley.

But LaPlante’s experience would also teach her something she never knew growing up in Odessa and Gardendale — all backyard poultry is illegal, not just roosters. All her birds had to make the trip to West Odessa, so no more fresh eggs.

Now LaPlante hopes to rally enough support to change that rule, and she figures with some evidence that many are living with backyard chickens in the city, unaware of the fact they are committing a Class C Misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500. That or they just disregard the law banning chickens.

“It’s giving people the power to feed themselves,” LaPlante said. “I don’t understand why I can’t have chickens. It just seems so ridiculous to me. For me, it’s a connection to my food. I eat eggs every day. My daughter loves eggs. And they are from our chickens. I do believe we could get enough people to rally City Council to change it.”

Odessa is the only city in a wide radius to ban chickens. Midland allows them, with some restrictions. Ditto Crane, Andrews and Gardendale, where LaPlante learned to care for the birds from her grandmother as a girl.

City administrators in interviews struggled to articulate the origin or reason for the ban and suggested they would be open to revisiting the idea, which would require council approval to change. The ban falls under a city ordinance that governs “Keeping livestock or poultry,” originating in 1957 and amended to its current form in April of 1997.

All livestock is banned — i.e. cows, sheep and so forth. But so are chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese, pigeons and other birds.

“We used to allow chickens,” City Attorney Larry Long said; he could not remember what prompted the ban but offered a guess. “The problem they had was not everyone kept their chickens in really good shape and there was a noise problem from the roosters.”

He also said there was likely a problem of roosters being used for cock fighting.

Earlier in the week, Long said he had yet to hear a complaint from citizens about the ordinance that would prompt a review. LaPlante emailed the City Manager’s office, which asked her to submit any research she has done so council can review it.

She plans to go to the city with research, model ordinances and supporters she is gathering via a Facebook page she created called “Chickens for Odessa,” but she wanted to wait on a decision of the Lubbock City Council about reversing a chicken ban.

The Lubbock council voted unanimously to do just that on Thursday evening.

Long, City Manager Richard Morton and Assistant City Manager Konrad Hildebrandt said the city would not have a problem revisiting the ordinance and that they could see why people might want backyard chickens in Odessa. Hildebrandt served as city manager of Cedar Hills, Utah, in 2011, when the council there approved changes driven by residents’ requests to allow backyard chickens.

That established rules to prevent a nuisance: No small fowl were allowed for commercial production. Coops were required, and they had to be kept from public view and cleaned. And caps on the amounts of chickens that people could own were set based on lot size.

Also, roosters were prohibited.

Such regulations are common in places that responded nationally to a growing trend of people wanting backyard chickens and the increasing popularity of urban farming. Major cities include Portland, Ore., and in Texas, Austin and San Antonio.

“I know there’s a push for organics and self-sufficiency, and that’s probably where this is coming from,” Morton said; he added that he knows next to nothing about chicken rearing and didn’t know the impetus for the city’s ban. “I assume they keep them to have eggs. If anything, I would just assume we are a city and those are farm animals, and because we live so close to each other, it might inconvenience one neighbor who likes chickens and the next neighbor who doesn’t and feels it’s a burden on them. I don’t know what kind of a burden it could be — noise, smell, whatever. I’d have to see some research on it.”

As it stands, it is difficult to determine how many people in the City of Odessa own chickens and thus break the law.

Animal control cited 44 people in the city under the “Keeping livestock or poultry” ordinance in 2014, according to figures by Cpl. Steve LeSueur, spokesman for the Odessa Police Department, which oversees the agency.

That does not reflect how many of those tickets were from chickens and not other banned animals. It also does not indicate how many of those tickets stemmed from neighbor complaints, although LeSueur said animal control officers report that’s generally the case.

But the amount of tickets issued for dogs and other pets dwarfs the number for chicken offenses, LeSueur said.

Anecdotal evidence exists that suggests chicken ownership in the city is common. Ranch Supply Co., 322 Jackson Ave., sells about 700 chicks a week, said owner W.T Henderson III, who goes by “Trey.” During Easter weekend, those sales almost doubled.

“What percentage goes into the city limits versus outside the city limits? I don’t know,” Henderson said. “But I’m sure there’s quite a few.”

Henderson said he generally avoids asking but will tell customers about the ban in Odessa if they ask about the rules.

“In Odessa we’d probably say ignorance of the law doesn’t mean you are innocent, but I imagine there’s much larger crime going on out here,” Henderson said.

Incidentally, Henderson is also a chicken owner on land outside of the city and lived in San Antonio, where backyard chickens are allowed. Hens don’t crow, so their nuisance is limited if their living space is kept clean he said. And chickens tend to bring the added benefit of thinning out insects.

“There’s nothing like fresh eggs,” Henderson said. “It seems like people are going back to that organic way of life in some regards.”

That idea was important enough to a couple in the Tanglewood Lane and Oakwood Drive area that they decided to get chickens even after they looked up the city’s rules and learned of the ban. A 27-year-old mother of two, who requested anonymity because she worried talking about her pair of backyard chickens and how she flouted law might draw the ire of Animal Control.

“I have them for lots of reasons,” said the stay-at-home mom who tends to the birds with her kindergartner and toddler. “The main reason is to have the fresh eggs every day. My family eats them daily, so it’s nice to be to be able to provide that out of our backyard. We know where these chickens have come from. We know how they have been treated. It’s good for them to learn to take care of things and to know where food comes from.”

Some neighbors and friends know about the birds, which live in a coop behind a cinder block fence along with the family dog, the woman said. But she doesn’t go around flaunting the chickens either.

“A lot of surrounding towns don’t have this ordinance, which I think is weird and really unfair,” the woman said. “Of course they have stipulations: You are limited to the number and you have to be a certain amount of feet from the neighbors and doors and things like that, and I totally agree. But I think Odessa needs to get with it and let us have our backyard chickens.”

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