Gwinnett to allow residents to own chickens

Gwinnett County commissioners decided Tuesday to allow backyard chickens in residential areas.

Residents who have at least 10,500 square feet of land will be allowed up to three hens — but no roostersunder the new rule. Those who have larger lots may have more fowl.

“I think it puts us in a leading position among people interested in improving their health,” said Carol Hassell, a Suwanee resident who has four hens. “I think that’s a salutary thing.”

Before, county laws prohibited residents from having chickens unless they lived in areas that were zoned for agriculture. Advocates of the change said allowing residents to have their own hens will help people see where their food comes from. But those opposed to the move worry about the noise, the smell and the possibility that chickens will get out.

The spread of avian flu is also a concern for Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash. Based on her conversations with state agriculture officials, she said, she thinks the county should have waited to make a decision until after the threat has passed.

Nash, who grew up on a chicken farm, said she wanted to support the proposal, but could not.

“I believe we are stepping out at the wrong time on this,” she said. “I don’t feel right voting to relax restrictions at this point in time.”

Nash also said she wanted more time to reach a compromise among people who found themselves at odds over the new rule, and to fix the language in the ordinance to make it clearer should the county ever need to defend it in court. Commissioner Lynette Howard said she worries what will happen to birds an owner decides he no longer wants. Both voted against the proposal, which passed 3-2.

Commissioner Tommy Hunter said he doesn’t think the avian flu is a concern for backyard farmers and noted there are no poultry farms in Gwinnett County. Besides, he said, there’s a benefit.

“There’s a generation of folks who lost all concept of where things come from,” he said.

Homeowners associations may still prohibit chickens.

Under the new county rules, hens are allowed only as pets and for egg production, not for butchering. Roosters are not permitted and residents must keep their birds in an enclosed yard or a six-sided pen in their backyard. No chickens are permitted within 50 feet of a neighbor’s building.

Residents who live on 12,500 to 24,999 square feet can have up to five; those on 25,000 to 39,999 square feet can have up to eight; and those between 40,000 square feet and 2.99 acres can have up to 10. There is no limit on the number of chickens one can have on three acres or more.

“It offers an opportunity that people in other communities had for a long time,” Hassell said. “It used to be a common fact of life. It was not an extraordinary thing.”

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