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Anyone wondering where famed San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson has been hiding out while on the disabled list should check Santa Rosa attorney Paul Miller's chicken coop.

He's got a Brian Wilson there. And an Elmo, a Henry and two other hens — Geo and Milli — all named by his 3-year-old son, who apparently overlooked that they're all female.

These chickens are more than egg layers to Miller's family of four, though their eggs — some a pale, green-blue — are much enjoyed.

They're family pets, playmates for Miller's young son and sidekicks to the family Lab, Emma.

"Aren't they pretty?" Miller asked, admiring his multi-colored flock as he served them table scraps and squirming, black soldier fly larvae. "And they all have different personalities."

Miller is among hundreds of city residents who have fueled a local boom in hen-keeping, reflecting a robust interest in homegrown foods and a recognition of hens as sociable companions.

The problem is that backyard chickens are illegal in most parts of the city.

Still, "People just can't get enough of them," said John "J.P." Pellham, poultry expert at Santa Rosa's Western Farm Center, which routinely sells out its supply of baby chicks and young chickens, called pullets.

Pellham said he sells 6,000 to 8,000 baby chicks a season, and last March sold all 700 or so chicks in his first shipment over a single weekend.

The 43 pullets that arrived at the Railroad Square-area store last Saturday sold within 48 hours, he said.

"I think there's well over 1,000 families in Santa Rosa probably have them," Pellham said.

Fans cite a host of benefits, everything from delicious, fresh eggs to natural insect control, table scrap disposal and the hens' funny, sometimes affectionate behavior. Parents love having their kids involved in raising the birds.

"They're very soothing for me," one chicken fan named Tom said as he perused Western Farm Center's poultry area early this week. "They're like pets."

"It's kind of a throwback to the way homes used to be," Miller said. "We raise a lot of our own vegetables. Now we get our own eggs. We can make a dinner with almost everything (coming) from our back yard."

Most cities in Sonoma County, save Rohnert Park, have some provisions permitting residents to raise backyard hens. But under the current Santa Rosa zoning and animal keeping ordinances, having chickens is prohibited except in those few neighborhoods zoned "rural residential."

City Council members soon may vote to change that. They'll be asked Sept. 18 to approve new regulations legalizing backyard hens and setting the terms under which they can be kept.

These include:

A ban on roosters and any chickens raised for commercial use.

Limits on the number of hens permitted, depending on lot size (three for 5,000 square feet or less and six for up to 10,000 square feet, for instance).

Minimum setbacks to the property line and neighboring homes (5 or 10 feet from the property line, and at least 20 feet to the closest dwelling).

Requirements that the hens have coops in securely fenced, backyard enclosures maintained in a clean condition that discourages rats and other pests.

Demand has been building for a change to the rules, but it wasn't until Oakmont Senior Living Communities applied a year ago for an amendment to the zoning code — and footed the estimated $8,500 bill for research, staff review and the like — that city planners got working on one.

Oakmont project manager Steve McCullagh said the firm has included a fenced chicken area and coop in its plans for the Fountaingrove Lodge senior living complex, which also will have grapevines, an orchard and a vegetable garden.

City planning commissioners voted unanimously Aug. 9 to recommend approval of the changes. City Planner Erin Morris said city officials have been impressed by the volume of correspondence and phone calls on the subject, nearly all supportive.

But those who oppose it "are vigorously opposed," Morris said, mostly because of fears neighborhood chickens would cause odor, breed vermin, spread disease and attract raccoons and other predators.

One Santa Rosa resident cited rats that appeared when his neighbors acquired chickens. Another said she worried that hen owners, once they no longer have to fear being turned in for their illegal flocks, would be less respectful of their neighbors' needs.

Rincon Valley resident Andrew Smith said permitting farm animals in suburbia opens "a whole can of worms," including unwanted noise, predators and the potential for avian viruses.

"What's next after chickens," Smith said. "That's the question: What is next?"

Senior city Code Enforcement Officer Mike Reynolds said that of the 30 to 50 chicken-related complaints made each year, 95 percent or more involve illicit roosters, a problem typically dealt with by a warning letter.

But he, Morris and others acknowledged rats, other rodents, flies and the like are sometimes problematic. Morris said they can be minimized or avoided by proper coop construction and maintenance, and smart handling of feed.

Hens, "like any animal ... come with responsibility," said City Councilwoman Susan Gorin, "and the owner is the caretaker, to make sure they are fed and protected."

(You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.)

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