Zoning and Paula Deen’s chickens

Even the Huffington Post is now covering the enforcement of zoning in Chatham County that might mean the end of Paula Deen’s chickens.

But I’m betting that the end result won’t be Paula Deen — or anyone else in the County — being forced to get rid of backyard chickens. Instead, we’ll see a change in zoning to allow certain numbers of hens under certain circumstances. There seems to a pretty broad public consensus that homeowners should be applauded if they’re keeping chickens, which is one of the most obvious ways of supporting the movement toward a culture of local food and sustainability.

Still, there are some interesting questions. In the Savannah Morning News a couple days ago, Mary Landers explored some of the differences between city and county zoning, including: “Savannah allows residents to keep up to five hens on their property, with stipulations about how far the animals must be kept from occupied buildings.”

But is five too low a limit? I know people who have more than five hens and who obviously aren’t creating any sort of problem for their neighbors. What types of buffering are really necessary?

It’s interesting that this debate about chickens is beginning at the same time that Metropolitan Planning Commission planners have released, after years of work, the draft of the Unified Zoning Ordinance, intended in large measure to streamline and simplify zoning in the city of Savannah and unincorporated portions of Chatham County. The full draft document is available on the UZO website.

I’m a big fan of the UZO, largely because I saw the intelligence behind it month in and month out when I was on the technical committee reviewing early drafts of various sections. I wrote about the UZO in my column Tuesday:

Right now we have conflicting language for the city of Savannah versus the unincorporated county. We have 126 zoning districts, far more than much larger cities. Some current development requirements do not work for urban settings, which results in an inordinate number of appeals for variances.

And too many property and business owners simply can’t find their way easily through the complex documentation and bureaucracy.

The cumbersomeness of the current zoning ordinances has certainly hurt economic development. No doubt about that.

But I’m worried that we won’t see the forest for the trees — that we’ll get sidetracked by small issues that can be easily remedied. Backyard chickens seems like an easy issue to solve.

And I sure hope that members of City Council and the County Commission who might be voting on the UZO as early as this fall won’t get sidetracked by irrational objections. The Thomas Square rezoning a few years ago was nearly derailed by a small number of people who didn’t ever seem to understand what the ordinance meant for them. And that was just one neighborhood.