“Chickengate” ruffles some feathers

I feel fortunate to live in City of Decatur. It’s an eclectic, fairly progressive community not far from downtown and midtown Atlanta. It has a lot of benefits of urban life – access to public transportation, public parks, walkability, great shops and restaurants – with a small town vibe. I’ve lived here for over a decade and love that I can go to my local grocery store or coffee shop and run into someone I know.

Yet, even in a great community like this one, you always get a few intolerant folks. Recently, my dear friend Stacy Reno has been subjected to much unwanted stress and scrutiny by her neighbor and a local newspaper columnist because she keeps chickens, a turkey and three pygmy goats in her backyard. The neighbor, Tanya Floyd, complained to the City that the animals were a nuisance and believes they are the cause of a recent rat infestation.

The City slapped Stacy with a citation, and when she pushed back, they did an inspection and ruled that her animals and backyard did not violate code regulations. They did tell her some changes needed to be made– mostly cosmetic ones, including painting the back of her house, removing yard debris (which she was already doing) and possibly moving the location of her main coop. She also needed to secure the feed elsewhere at night. However, the most important ruling for Stacy was that the animals could stay and that the goats (a particular point of contention for Floyd) were “companion animals”, not “livestock.” Stacy will also be finding homes for some of the younger chickens once they reach maturity.

A recent article in the Decatur-Avondale Estates Patch exacerbated the issue. The reporter was eventually removed from the story for undisclosed reasons. Recently, he published a Storify feed piecing together Stacy’s tweets and his own Patch updates to provide a timeline on the issue, but it does still seem to demonstrate his bias pertaining to this story. On Twitter, he described Stacy as being whiny and bringing all of this attention upon herself. She was simply frustrated by the unexpected attention and wanted to tell her side. The story has since been featured as a sidebar in the Creative Loafing and Atlanta Journal-Constitution (see photo at right.)

The one thing that saddens and surprises us all is that according to Stacy, Floyd never once approached her to discuss the matter privately once she had concerns. It’s not as if they had a bone to pick with each other previously; they were on casual, friendly terms. Stacy has indicated on her blog and to friends that she attempted  to speak with her in person after receiving the citation and Floyd refused to talk.

Really? Is this “neighborly” behavior? It’s one thing to have an issue with your neighbor if you don’t like something he or she has done.  Sometimes that happens when people live in close proximity to each other. The appropriate and neighborly thing to do is attempt to discuss it with that person first, and if you can’t reach a resolution, then take it to the authorities.

Oakhurst is an eclectic neighborhood. Brand-new Craftsman and Prairie-style homes sit on lots next to classic period architecture. A certain amount of creative funkiness is accepted, even encouraged, by residents. However, there are also areas of Oakhurst that haven’t shaken off drug activity and neglected/foreclosed houses sit on overgrown lots.  These are the issues where we need to be focusing our attention.

I’ve lived in Decatur a long time, back when parts of it were not as gentrified as they are now. I’ve had drug dealers on one side of me and people with multiple chained-up dogs that bark day and night on the other. I think I’d prefer the mini-farm.  At least there’s something quaint and bucolic about the sound of chickens clucking every now and then.

Floyd claims that she can’t cook in her kitchen or entertain in her home because of the “barnyard smells.” I’ve been in Stacy’s yard on a warm day and I did not notice a strong odor. (And anyone who knows me knows I am a clean freak who is sensitive to odors.) She cleans the coops regularly, has put down mulch to cover the ground and uses a non-toxic odor eliminating product on the grounds and around the coops.

I personally believe the heart of the issue stems from the appearance of the yard and house. Floyd claims that a rodent exterminator came out and said the cause of her recent infestation was due to readily available feed. While that may be one cause, it doesn’t totally explain why she has rats and Stacy doesn’t. Neither do her neighbors on the side where the coop is currently located. It was also acknowledged in Floyd’s complaint that she was aware that City of Decatur has had issues with rats. There are many reasons why rats will choose to infest a particular location. It’s an issue in my neighborhood; none of us own backyard chickens and the yards are all well-maintained. I still don’t understand why, if Floyd had concerns, that she didn’t express them to Stacy sooner so that she could alleviate any concerns right away. It might have cost them both less money and hassle in the long run.

Stacy has acknowledged on her blog that her home is a fixer-upper that hasn’t quite received the TLC she intended when she and her husband purchased it. There is some yard debris and overhanging vines from the neighbors’ yard that she was already addressing prior to the citation. She is aware of changes that need to be made and is making them. A number of us have offered to help her with some sweat equity to get this issue resolved without more drama.

Stacy is a kind, generous, and reasonable person. She has two young girls, and is active in our community on a professional and volunteer level. She loves her animals, takes good care of them and is not some crazy hoarder. For her, having a bit of country in the city is her “Zen.” With the exception of Floyd, her neighbors support her, bring their kids to play with the chickens and goats. At left is a photo of my daughter and Stacy bottle-feeding the pygmy goats. My daughter absolutely loved the experience! Many of us have been frequent recipients of fresh eggs. You have not had eggs until you’ve had one that was freshly laid.  

As neighbors, we should be giving our friends a hand up when they need it. That’s why I’m talking about this issue on my blog and I’m willing to help her with whatever work needs to be done to remain compliant with City of Decatur code regulations. Stacy has been harassed enough by this issue, and doesn’t need to be the target of verbal attacks on Patch, message boards or Twitter. She’s not trying to be an activist; she’s just wanted to do something that gives her and her children some joy and it turned out to be more of an issue than she ever anticipated.

 I’m glad that the City of Decatur supports Stacy’s right to urban agriculture. There is room in our community for people who want to live a little bit closer to the land without having to move out to the country. Locavore culture shouldn’t have to be confined to community gardens (although those are great resources) or the weekend farmers’ market. I do think there needs to be more education, as well as very clear definitions, for what is and isn’t allowable. We should strive to prevent what has happened to Stacy to happen to other people interested in raising backyard chickens or other companion animals.

*Note: this post has been revised to more accurately reflect verifiable information sources and to more clearly indicate my position on the issue. I’m a blogger, not a journalist.

(Photo of baby goats copyright Dana Lisa Young and may not be used without express permission)

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