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Hernando moves forward on allowing chickens in residential neighborhoods

BROOKSVILLE — Carol Aquilante is one step closer to whipping up omelets made with eggs laid in the yard of her Spring Hill home.

A unanimous Hernando County Commission on Tuesday told planning staffers to come up with a draft zoning ordinance to allow chickens on residentially zoned property.

Commissioners agreed that a carefully constructed permitting process would allow backyard cluckers to live in harmony with their suburban neighbors.

"We're in a changing society," said commission Chairman Wayne Dukes. "People are wanting to be more self-sufficient because they're losing trust in government to provide services. I think we're moving in the right direction as long as it's controlled."

Hernando's code currently allows chickens on land with agricultural designations. Commissioners agreed to consider a new policy after Aquilante, who lives on a third of an acre on Piedmont Drive, sent the county a letter expressing her desire to keep a few chickens as a source of fresh eggs.

Staffers recommended drawing up rules requiring residents to apply for a special exception permit. County staffers have a range of examples from other jurisdictions to use as a guide, said zoning supervisor Chris Linsbeck.

Among the places that allow backyard chickens are Citrus and Sumter counties, and the city of Tampa is poised for a vote. Pasco and Hillsborough counties do not.

"We have a lot of homework to do," Linsbeck said.

Commissioners agreed that roosters — the males that would disturb neighbors with their crowing — would be prohibited. The rules would also set minimum distances between chicken coops and adjacent property lines and dwellings.

Newly sworn Commissioner Nick Nicholson initially opposed chickens on residential lots, then changed his mind after Vice Chairman Dave Russell suggested that the rules allow for the revocation of a permit upon a second violation.

"If neighbors are complaining about noisy chickens, (permit holders) get one warning, and after that they've got to go," Russell said.

Commissioner Jim Adkins said the dozen chickens on his property east of Brooksville are quiet.

"I don't even know they're there, except having to feed them and making sure they have the water," he said. "The noisy part is gathering the eggs."

Commissioner Diane Rowden, also at her first meeting since her election victory earlier this month, suggested Hernando look to densely populated Pinellas County for guidance. In December, county commissioners there approved a new ordinance allowing residents in unincorporated areas to have up to four hens.

Backyard chickens already are welcome in several other Pinellas cities, including St. Petersburg, Gulfport, Largo, Dunedin and Belleair.

Beyond allowing residents to produce their own food, "I think it will be a great learning tool for our children," Rowden said. "A lot of kids have never seen chickens lay an egg."

Former Commissioner June Ester warned the board about potential odor problems and recommended that the rules set a minimum lot size of one-half acre.

Chickens do not produce an odor, Rowden countered, but people associate the fowl with a nasty stench because of their experience driving by factory poultry farms, where tons of manure is concentrated in one place.

Aquilante agreed.

"The issue with odor is only if we don't take care of them properly, if we don't keep the coop clean," she told commissioners.

While the talk focused on egg-laying, one issue that did not come up was whether residents would be allowed to slaughter chickens on their property. Many jurisdictions forbid that, Linsbeck said.

Once a proposed ordinance is drafted, the Planning and Zoning Commission will hold a public hearing, then send a recommendation to the County Commission, which will hold two hearings. The planning board will likely consider the ordinance in January and the commission the following month, Linsbeck said.

After the unanimous vote, a beaming Aquilante said she felt "ecstatic" about the progress.

The lover of egg white omelets racks up grocery bills by purchasing eggs laid by uncaged, vegetarian chickens. Aquilante wants to keep three hens on her property — maybe a fourth to have some eggs to give away.

"I understand this ordinance has to be about more than just me," she said. "This is about moving things forward."

Reach Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431. Follow him on Twitter @TMarreroTimes and @Hernando Times.

In other business

The Hernando County Commission on Tuesday:

• Approved a $1.7 million payment as a partial legal settlement with Orion Dredging Services, the first contractor to work on the Hernando Beach Channel dredge. The move is the first step in the county's legal strategy to secure several million dollars in damages from Halcrow Inc., which designed the failed first dredging attempt.

• Agreed to pay a $10,000 fine — plus $1,000 in administrative costs — to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The department determined that the county's Hernando Beach dredge contractor dug the channel deeper and wider than allowed by the permit, adversely affecting about an acre and a half of sea grass. Commissioners voted begrudgingly for the measure, agreeing that the settlement would cost less than mitigating the damage or fighting the fine through legal action.

• Approved a $169,091 payment to Cardno TBE for engineering services related to the extension of Yontz Road from Howell Avenue to U.S. 41 on the north side of Brooksville. The project, when completed, will allow motorists to bypass the treacherous junction of Howell and 41.

Hernando moves forward on allowing chickens in residential neighborhoods 11/20/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 8:17pm]

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