By Mary Landers
They dodged the frying pan, but not the zoning man.
Last Wednesday, Chatham County issued celebrity chef Paula Deen a violation notice about the five rescue hens she keeps in a luxury coop on her marshfront property on Wilmington Island.
“She was cited and given time to address the violation,” said Gregori Anderson, director of Chatham County Building Safety and Regulatory Services.
The birds’ offense: Deen’s property is not zoned with either of two “residential agricultural” designations, the only zones that allow chickens in unincorporated Chatham County. Her hens were brought to the county’s attention after zoning administrator Robert Sebek told another Wilmington Island family – Bill and Jan Lynes – their 22 hens had to go.
The Lynes are prepared to go to court to keep their chickens. Deen’s publicist Nancy Assuncao said Deen will “comply with whatever needs to be done.”
But the Lynes’ and Deen’s birds and all their backyard brethren in the county may yet get a reprieve. County Commissioner Patrick Farrell said Friday he would like his fellow commissioners to explore the possibility of allowing chickens in the unincorporated area. After being contacted by several residents requesting the change, Farrell said he plans to bring the matter up at Friday’s commission meeting.
“I think I’d like to look at it,” Farrell said. “There’s a certain following of people that own chickens or would like own them and take good care of them and not be a burden on their neighbors.”
Backyard chickens are part of a national trend of growing vegetables and producing food locally, said Dennis Hutton, chair of the Healthy Savannah Initiative and a member of a newly formed local Food Council. Both groups promote healthier eating, including growing and eating fresh food produced locally.
“This is an issue everywhere in the country,” Hutton said. “Zoning and animal ordinances didn’t contemplate this (trend) would happen. And it should happen. People should be able to feed themselves from their backyard.”
In fact, before local chickens got their feathers ruffled over zoning there was evidence of a growing urban chicken population here. A talk at Savannah’s Earth Day Festival in April focused on how to raise chickens and there have been several tours of local chicken coops. A Facebook page called Savannah Backyard Chickens boasts 121 members. Some hail from within Savannah where it’s clearly OK to keep up to five hens (or five mules, cattle, sheep, goats, rabbits, guinea pigs and oddly, hamsters, though roosters are verboten) but many others live outside city limits.
The county rules need clarification, said Tom Thomson, executive director of the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Planning Commission.
“The current ordinance, from the research we did since this issue started, is inadequate to address backyard chickens,” he said. “It’s probably appropriate to look at the current ordinance and see what’s reasonable to do to address the situation county inspectors are finding themselves in.”
Thomson’s staff, which includes Hutton, is working on a Unified Zoning Ordinance that will likely point to the animal control ordinance for guidance on backyard chickens. One approach, he said, would be to have a sliding scale that allowed more hens for larger properties with certain limits about where the birds are kept in relation to neighbors. The UZO won’t be adopted for months, though, and the county commission could make changes more quickly if it decides to do so.
In the meantime, Anderson said his office is merely calling it as it sees it.
“We’ve got no ax to grind here; I like chicken, mostly fried,” he said. “If the board feels it’s time to update to more user-friendly language, so be it.”
Anderson’s office is also evaluating the county and city’s ordinances as they relate to chickens.
“There are many people on both sides of the fence. Our zoning ordinance limits it to agricultural zones,” he said. “(The county commission) can modify the zoning ordinance or they can somehow refer to the animal control ordinance. Right now every use is predicated on the zoning ordinance.”
If the commission does act, the violation notices will be stayed, Anderson said. Along with the Lynes and Deen, the county also issued a chicken eviction notice to Savannah Bee Company founder and Wilmington Island resident Ted Dennard.
The Lynes have a July 25 date in Recorder’s Court about their chickens, which came to the county’s attention when a neighbor complained about them. Bill Lynes is hoping the issue gets resolved in his chickens’ favor before then.
“I think it’s going to be a good thing,” he said. “It stirred people up enough that maybe we’ll get a good ordinance.”
That would work for Deen, who publicist Assuncao said doesn’t want to give up her backyard chickens.
“It would be really sad,” Assuncao said. “She truly does love her birds. It is what it is and she’ll do what she needs to do.”