Calling the right to fresh chicken and eggs constitutionally protected, state lawmakers are moving to override city ordinances that restrict the ownership of fowl.
The proposal by Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa, would declare in state law that the rights of property owners to raise poultry trumps the rights of the folks next door not to have them in the neighborhood. SB 1151 would specifically void any existing city ordinance to the contrary.
Farnsworth's legislation is not absolute.
The law applies only to detached single-family homes. So owners of town homes and condos still would have to live chicken-free.
Cities would be able to place limits on the number of fowl, and roosters could still be forbidden unless they lacked the ability to noisily greet the dawn — and virtually every other hour. But it would permit homeowners to put the pens right up against the property line.
That provision could be the most significant.
For example, cities like Tucson do permit up to 24 chickens on a residential lot, but the ordinance requires the coop to be at least 50 feet from any dwelling on an adjacent property.
Adam Smith of the city's Planning and Development Services Department said given the size of many lots, that restriction effectively precludes raising chickens in much of the city.
Yuma has a similar situation, where chickens can be kept on city-size lots — less than 10,000 square feet — but only if written permission is first obtained from those owning and living on adjacent parcels.
Cottonwood allows a dozen fowl in certain zoning, and Yavapai County limits chickens to eight per lot, with containment area at least 15 feet from all property lines.
Other places, like Sierra Vista, ban chickens outright.
But Farnsworth said Wednesday that's not the role of cities, calling bans and severe restrictions “kind of ridiculous.”
“The proper role of government according to the U.S. Constitution and the Arizona Constitution is to protect the liberty of the people,” he said. “Liberty of the people is being eroded, particularly property rights.”
Farnsworth said the issue of animal ownership is it's more than a simple question of preference.
He said that, growing up in Mesa, his family had not only chickens but also rabbits and goats.
“And it's a good thing we did,” Farnsworth said. “Otherwise we might be short on things to eat.”
He isn't alone in his sentiment: 21 other legislators out of the 90 at the Capitol have signed on as cosponsors.
Farnsworth acknowledged that a next-door neighbor might not want a chicken pen right up against the fence, but he said that right to live in a chicken-free zone is limited.
“I've come to the conclusion that our own property rights on our property need to be supreme,” Farnsworth said.
Ken Strobeck, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, said it's not that simple.
“I think the issue is, whose freedom are you protecting,” he said. Strobeck said people who buy homes in urban areas have certain expectations of what life will be like.
“If there are noises or smells or things that are not anticipated when they purchased in that neighborhood, then their property rights are being infringed on,” he said.
Farnsworth acknowledged that it isn't simply a matter of having chickens. There's also the question of their malodorous droppings.
But Farnsworth said there are sufficient general laws against public nuisances to prevent one person's desire to have chickens from creating an unreasonable burden on neighbors.
Strobeck, however, isn't so sure that Farnsworth's legislation even leaves that as an option.
“If you have a state law that says you can't prohibit somebody from keeping chickens at their home, then I think that would probably override a local zoning ordinance or a local nuisance ordinance,” he said.