“Did we get everything we wanted?” Pond said. “No. Did we expect to? No. But I was very impressed with Commissioner (Bob) Ott’s statements that this is a beginning.”
A divided Board of Commissioners OK’d a code change that allows residents who want to have hens on fewer than 2 acres to apply for a $150 variance with the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals. If the zoning board rejects the request, it stops there and the alternative is to appeal to the Cobb Superior Court. If the zoning board grants the request, it must be ratified by the Board of Commissioners.
County development director Rob Hosack said the variance lasts for two years before the resident must renew. It allows one hen per 5,000 square feet. Roosters are not permitted.
“If you have an acre of land, you could probably have eight birds,” Hosack said.
That translates to four hens on a half-acre lot. Even a subdivision dweller on a tiny lot of 0.25 to 0.33 acres could theoretically raise two birds.
Hosack said it makes sense to consider reducing the application fee upon renewal of the variance, which is something his staff will consider.
The board voted 3-2 in favor of chickens, with county chairman Tim Lee and commissioner JoAnn Birrell opposed. Chickens got a thumbs up from commissioners Helen Goreham, Lisa Cupid and Ott.
Lee takes stand against chickens
In arguing against the code change, Lee said Cobb has gone too far down the road of urbanization to turn back now.
“I believe that if we adopt this ordinance it would be an open door to a slope that would find this board considering almost every other kind of animal imaginable,” he said.
Pond said his chicken problem with the county began in the summer of 2011, when his neighbor, Carole Kell, who lives on a hill overlooking his backyard, complained to Commissioner JoAnn Birrell about his dozen pet hens he kept on his half acre.
“As Carole told me, she called her ‘good friend the commissioner’ to inquire about their legality because she was concerned that they were going to ruin her property value,” Pond said.
Kell, a prominent member of the community whose late husband is the namesake of Kell High School and whose son is Cobb Superior Court Judge Tain Kell, declined to comment for this article.
After being cited by code enforcement, Pond was given the option of getting rid of his hens, applying for a variance or appealing to Cobb Superior Court. That’s when he formed the Backyard Chicken Alliance to try to change the county code banning chickens on lots smaller than 2 acres. But the Board of Zoning Appeals denied his variance request.
“The way the code was written and as policy for the BZA, they say they don’t issue variances in cases of animals because they were under the opinion that it would circumvent the code,” Pond said.
An appeal to Cobb Superior Court was also rejected.
“The weekend after Thanksgiving 2011, I had to remove the birds from my property,” Pond said.
He dropped them off with an acquaintance in East Point.
Bonding with birds
“We were very emotionally attached because most we had raised from baby chicks,” he said. “It was horrible. I cried my eyes out all the way down to East Point.”
Pond filed an ethics complaint against Birrell, claiming she violated the county’s ethics code by failing to show impartiality on the variance case, although the county’s seven-member ethics board cleared Birrell of the charge in a unanimous vote in December.
On Tuesday night, residents packed the Board of Commissioners’ meeting room, many wearing yellow shirts in support of the code change.
Speaking to the board in favor of backyard chickens, Ray Palermo of east Cobb said he didn’t see what all the fuss was about.
“You can go to the tony neighborhoods of Atlanta, be it Druid Hills, Buckhead, the Emory area, and there’s literally chickens running around in people’s backyards,” Palermo said. “No one has to regulate them. They seem to get along. My daughter lives there. She has chickens next door to her. She doesn’t choose to raise chickens but her neighbor gives her eggs. I can’t believe that we’re even having this discussion over chickens.”
Dogs and cats carry more risk
Veterinarian Mitzi Levine of east Cobb brought up a comment commissioners made at a previous meeting about missing the public hearing on account of bird flu.
“The fact of the matter is bird flu, also known as avian influenza, has never been diagnosed in North America,” Levine said.
Levine said while cats, the most popular household pet, have 26 diseases that can infect humans and dogs have 36 transmissible diseases, that doesn’t prevent people from having them as pets.
“Birds by nature are very clean animals and are constantly grooming and cleaning themselves,” Levine said. “The reality is very few infectious diseases of the avian species, which includes poultry, are zoonotic diseases. So now that the myth is expelled, and you are educated in zoonotic diseases, you can see that you are very unlikely to contract bird flu or any other disease from poultry. You will need to come up with a different excuse to miss the meeting.”
Anxious to apply for permits
Now that the code change has been approved, Pond said many in his group are eager to apply for the variance.
“Going forward we have to look at it as our opportunity to shine,” Pond said. “We have to do what is expected of us so that we can a year, two years from now reapproach them about expanding what they’ve come up with.”
As for whether Ms. Kell can expect to see hens again when looking out her window in the near future, “That’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility,” Pond said.