Can we have chickens in our suburb?

Updated: May 6, 2021

OK. So you've decided to pick up a few pullets at the feed store. After all, they are adorable and you've been wanting to do this for a long time. Before you start building your coop, you need to check with your local council to see if you are allowed to have them in the first place. Having two or three is probably not a big deal, but if you are looking at this from a business perspective, asking for forgiveness instead of permission can be an expensive and heartbreaking journey.

An understanding of the legal issues enabling or permitting your backyard chicken farm first begins with council laws. While residential zoning varies from one area to the next, most zoning codes are what is called, "permissive use," meaning that an action is only permitted within a certain location if that area’s zoning codes specify its allowance. For example. I live in the Adelaide Hills and my suburb of Stirling is made up mostly of small landholdings of a 1/4 acre. As you get closer to the main street, the area allows for subdividing the properties and even offers Torrens Title homes. Other places call these townhomes because they share a wall. We happen to live on 3 1/2 acres. Our property is different than probably 95% of the properties in our town, and we are zoned differently as a result. If we lived on the other side of the street, the zoning laws are more permissive for subdividing the property, but on our side of the street, we currently aren't allowed to do so. On the positive side though, we can have more livestock, because the zoning law is based on property size.

The origin of zoning laws is understandable and, largely, agreeable. These codes were designed to protect a person’s land and home value, ensuring that an individual would not purchase property, only to have an industrial plant or railroad built next door. For this reason, most zoning regulations for residential areas fail to specify whether poultry is allowed or not.

By omission, the institution of permissive use entails that a backyard chicken project is legally prohibited, even though the creators of zoning codes had no intention of banning the pursuit. Now, let's look at how this worked back in World War 2. In Australia and the USA, our governments encouraged its citizens to replace their grass lawns with victory gardens so that the manufactured food could be diverted to the troops overseas. It was good for the families back home and the spouses on the front lines benefited from ample supplies of food. In spite of this leniency during wartime, many towns and cities continue to operate under the legal stance that residential chicken livestock is not sanctioned within municipal limits.

At the turn of the 21st century, with a growing renewal in sustainable practices like victory gardens, most cities reverted to allowing backyard chickens. As of 2011, 93% of US cities permit some standard of backyard chickens. Back then, I remember moving back to the USA temporarily and seeing chickens roaming the front yards in the inner city of Los Angeles. I just about fell over when I saw them living in this concrete jungle.

Before committing to building a flock of your own though, check with your local laws. Broaden your understanding of zoning regulations and municipal codes to the health department mandates, noise ordinances, and roaming animal laws. If you are planning to have a rooster within your flock, this is even more important because their calls can happen day and night and their voices will carry throughout the neighborhood. You might love the wake-up call, but your neighbors may not. If necessary, consult a local municipal law solicitor.

Before constructing any fencing or enclosure, you should have a record of legal documentation detailing any limit on the number of chickens you can possess, rooster restrictions, waste management regulations (including environmental waterway runoff), permit requirements, and/or limitations on where enclosures can be erected. Once again, this is more important for the person who is raising larger flocks. Most laws will allow a small flock for personal consumption because they don't really produce more waste than the average cat or dog.

If you find that backyard chickens in your area are prohibited, either by omission or outright regulation, then you will have to decide whether you want to be the one to petition for a hearing at your next council meeting. If so, it really helps to get your community around you in advance, so reach out to your friends, neighbors, and sustainably-minded community groups like community gardens and co-ops to write letters and show their support on the petition.

If you would like to learn more about whether raising backyard chickens is for you, please purchase my introductory ebook on Etsy.

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