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Year after passage of Hernando's ordinance, 'all quiet on the chicken front'

SPRING HILL — Carol Aquilante's "girls" know Mom's voice and respond immediately when she looks in on them.

To do that, Aquilante needs only to unlock the window in the family room and call through the screen.

"Where are my girls?'' she asks, and one by one her white leghorn hens pop out to see what's up.

Dolly, Martha, Hillary and Susan B. come front and center as Aquilante makes a clicking sound to attract the birds to the front of their homemade coop.

The names aren't a political statement.

"Strong, strong women,'' Aquilante said. "I named them after strong women.''

The girls came to live with Aquilante about one year ago, just weeks after her effort to bring backyard chickens to Hernando County's residential neighborhoods paid off with a positive vote of the County Commission.

At that time, they were just tiny 2-day-old chicks, fuzzy and cute but not yet earning their keep. Still, they were endearing enough to steal her heart.

Within months they were full grown and producing fresh eggs to keep Aquilante supplied for her daily omelette and occasional gifts to her neighbors, who signed off on letting her have the coop and the chickens.

That is one of the ordinance's requirements — that neighbors sign their approval. Not every would-be backyard chicken-keeping hopeful has been so lucky, according to Chris Linsbeck, the county's zoning supervisor.

Some found that getting neighbors to sign off was not possible.

Linsbeck likes that provision in the ordinance because it forces potential chicken owners to open a dialogue with the neighbors who will be most affected by having poultry in the neighborhood.

When the ordinance was first proposed, Linsbeck said there was some concern that he and the code enforcement staff would be overwhelmed with chicken issues, but that has not been the case.

A year into the experience, only 10 permits have been approved; there have been 19 complaints. In four of the complaints, there was no violation of the ordinance. Three others are under discussion at this point, and two have not yet been inspected. The rest were resolved.

Linsbeck said residents holding the permits have been good about keeping their coops clean and their food sealed because they don't want vermin in their neighborhoods any more than their neighbors do.

The ordinance sets the maximum number of chickens at four and does not allow other kinds of farm birds like ducks or geese in residential neighborhoods. Roosters aren't welcome either. Aquilante's only roosters are decorations in her home.

Setbacks and fences are also required to keep neighbors from having to look at the chickens, which must be in a coop.

Prior to the ordinance, Linsbeck noted, the only answer the county could offer people who wanted chickens in their residential yards was "no."

"At least this gives people who would be in violation an option,'' he said.

The permit costs $125, and it is good for five years.

"I don't think it's been a big problem,'' Linsbeck said. "People are either complying or working with the officers. It's all quiet on the chicken front.''

Aquilante, 64, has been thrilled with her backyard chicken experience. She had never had chickens before. But when she bought her house on Piedmont Drive in Spring Hill, she looked out back one day and thought it would be a great place to have chickens.

That's when she went to the county to find out how to make it happen and learned that it would require changing the county's rules. So she set out to do that, first with county staffers, then before the Planning and Zoning Commission and finally the County Commission.

Along the way, she faced opposition from home builders and Realtors. She tried to get support from big names like Michelle Obama and Martha Stewart. That didn't happen, but she did get a letter of support from the folks at the newly opened Rural King store in Spring Hill.

That is a place she likes to go and talk to chicken novices about what she has learned in the last year.

Aquilante said she is thrilled to have been part of getting the chicken ordinance passed. She has also enjoyed learning about growing her own food. She also has a garden, and it supplements the diets of her and her hens.

She enjoys keeping up the coop and the garden.

"It's not work," she said.'

The only drawback to having the chickens, she said, is that she has had to go back in time somewhat and maintain a curfew. To keep the girls safe, she must be sure they're secure in their nesting box at night.

"I do have to be home by dark,'' she said. "The things you do for your kids …"

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Year after passage of Hernando's ordinance, 'all quiet on the chicken front' 03/25/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 6:42pm]
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