Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Zoning Language to Help with Chicken/Goat Permit

If you live in Denver and want to grow lettuce and a few tomatoes for a salad, you're in luck. Vegetable gardens are generally considered to be ok. If you want to take the step of "growing" your own eggs to hardboil and add to the salad, things become considerably more difficult.

Potential chicken and dwarf dairy goat owners often get discouraged. Some give up trying to get a permit before they've even begun. Why does this happen? The common wisdom -- and frequent experience of potential owners -- is that if anyone objects to your permit request, it won't be granted. It doesn't matter if your neighbor's objection isn't "fact-based" (which is a nice way of saying their complaint could be completely wacky and not supported by any facts about the animals in question), they'll still successfully stop your permit.

This unbalanced approach to property rights could be changing. Part of the administrative review for a permit involves the zoning case manager sending out a notice to the City Councilperson and the neighborhood governing organizations in your area. I have a friend who received a copy of the notice that was sent out as a result of her permit request, and it contained the following language (emphasis added):

"Any objections must be in writing... Zoning Administrator will review all written comments, evaluate the proposal on the basis of the ordinance criteria, and either approve or deny the application. Please also review the attached Criteria for the Keeping of Animals, and be advised that if the applicant demonstrates compliance with these criteria, Zoning Administrator is compelled to approve the exception... Therefore, all comments must be pertinent to these criteria."

Now, I don't know if this language is new or not. I've never seen one of these notices before, since they typically just go out to the Councilperson and the neighborhood organizations (not to the applicant). But, new or not, this is encouraging!

Some of the most common neighbor complaints are related to sanitation or noise... they worry that the animals will smell or attract rodents, or be excessively loud. Applicants have already addressed those concerns in step #4 of the Criteria for the Keeping of Animals, so unless the neighbor can disprove what the applicant has put in his/her application, it seems that the applicant should prevail.

And then there are the complaints that aren't "fact-based." Things like: the hens will lay 300 eggs a week (actual complaint that was made in one case), animals don't belong in the city, the presence of (well-kept) animals will decrease property values, etc. According to the zoning language above, those kinds of complaints should not affect a permit.

My suggestion is that anyone applying for a Zoning Variance for animals bring the above language with them when they meet with their zoning case manager after the 30-day comment period. If there have been any objections to the permit, ask the case manager whether the complaints meet the necessary criteria for stopping your permit. My guess is that they don't.

Although this is good news, it doesn't mean that we're going to stop in our campaign to create a new Food-Producing Animals ordinance for Denver. The current process is expensive, time-consuming, and problematic in many ways. But, it's possible that the language that is coming out of Zoning could be helpful to those that are currently in the process of getting their permits.

A couple of additional thoughts... Don't let #7 in the Criteria for the Keeping of Animals throw you for a loop. It may seem like you're required to get letters of support from your neighbors in order to get a permit, but you're not. According to the wonderful Michael O'Flaherty, Zoning Administrator:

"The key point in #7 is that the applicant is required to notify abutting neighbors and request letters of support or consent, however the code clearly does not require letters of support are obtained. Part of what I will discuss with staff is the fine line between what the code requires, and the practical impact on a review upon consideration of letters of support and opposition." (April 6, 2010)

Also, I want to throw in something else about that old "property values" argument. I talked a little about that here as it relates to front yard gardens. Although chickens and dwarf goats aren't kept in front yards, I would say that they can have some of the same benefits in bringing communities together (just ask all of my neighbors who regularly stop by to visit the animals). In addition, the issue of "property values" is not carte blanche to trample your neighbor's rights. Bringing home three 150-pound dogs could affect a neighbor's property values. So could painting your house hot pink. However, both actions are allowed by the city without any permitting required.

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