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Land use: County reviews rules as residents play chicken with zoning

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Which comes first, the chicken or the zoning?

“We are studying the issue,” said Boyd Johnson, the Georgetown County planning director. “Ninety-three of the 100 largest cities allow chickens. I’m not saying everywhere, but somewhere.”

Georgetown County allows chickens in some of its zoning districts, too. But the county planning staff is now considering whether poultry should be allowed in residential districts where they are currently not permitted, but where homeowners raise them anyway.

Amber Bradshaw is among them. Her Pawleys Island area home is in a “general residential” zoning district. She has 11 hens and a pair of milk goats, all part of her family’s efforts to follow a more sustainable lifestyle. They didn’t set out to violate the zoning ordinance. In fact, Bradshaw served on the homeowners association board in her neighborhood and she said she checked with the association’s attorney to make sure her animals didn’t violate the deed restrictions.

No one has complained about the animals, and she hasn’t tried to keep them a secret. Bradshaw writes about her activities on her website, thecoastalhomestead.com.

“I can see where someone innocently might do it,” said Tom Stickler, president of the Hagley Estates Homeowners Association. He pointed out that the county zoning ordinance only lists allowed uses, it doesn’t list prohibitions the way deed restrictions do. “The deed restrictions clearly state you can’t have chickens in Hagley,” he said.

Any change in the county zoning ordinance wouldn’t open the coop for Hagley or any other neighborhood where the covenants ban chickens. But Stickler is concerned that a zoning change will make the restrictions harder to enforce.

“We don’t feel it’s our mission to snoop around for chickens,” Stickler said. But when someone complains to the homeowners association, he takes the complaint to the county zoning administrator because the community is zoned “R-10” and raising chickens is not a permitted use.

Letting the county enforce the zoning means the association is spared the expense of hiring a lawyer and filing a complaint in magistrate’s court. It also means the complainant can remain anonymous.

“Right now we’ve got a situation where somebody’s got chickens and a neighbor complained,” Stickler said. “It’s possible that it may go to trial.”

In some residential zones, the county currently allows chickens as a conditional use on lots of 2 acres or more and where the chickens are housed at least 100 feet from the property lines. Johnson found in researching ordinances in other communities that they restrict the number of hens and prohibit roosters altogether. “Apparently the roosters are the problem,” he said.

Crowing of roosters is what usually triggers complaints in Hagley. “That’s where people get into trouble,” Stickler said.

“They’re loud and aggressive,” Bradshaw said. She had a rooster, once. “As soon as we heard that crow, we re-homed him.”

Johnson expects to take a staff recommendation to the Planning Commission this fall. “It would be nice if they changed it so more people couple be more food-independent,” Bradshaw said. “This is one of the things they could do.”

In Bradshaw’s case, the chickens came before the zoning. “All this property back here was a chicken farm,” she said, before it was turned into residential lots in the 1970s.

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