Chickens were the stars of the show Tuesday at the Santa Rosa City Council meeting.
Hailed as healthy, sustainable, comforting, educational and just plain fun, backyard hens were removed from forbidden status in most Santa Rosa neighborhoods by a unanimous vote of the seven-member council.
"We have a lot of outlaw chickens in our city, and we would like to give them some amnesty," Councilwoman Susan Gorin said.
All Sonoma County cities except Rohnert Park allow residents to raise backyard hens within certain limits. But under Santa Rosa zoning ordinances, having chickens is prohibited except in all but a few neighborhoods zoned "rural residential."
Still, hundreds of families in Santa Rosa surreptitiously raise hens in backyard coops, spurred by the locavore food movement, homesteading efforts and a desire to teach their children about where food comes from.
So when the Oakmont Senior Living development company applied last year to change the city codes to allow a large chicken coop for its senior citizen residents, a variety of groups with a common fondness for chickens got behind the effort.
The changes, which the council will formalize later with a second reading of the ordinance, will among other things allow a 30-hen coop and pen at the company's Fountaingrove Lodge, which is under construction on Thomas Lake Harris Drive.
Specifically, the council legalized backyard hens solely for egg production and approved guidelines under which they can be kept.
Those include limits on the number of hens, depending on lot size, from three on lots smaller than 5,000 square feet to a maximum of 30 for the largest parcels; setbacks of at least 20 feet from the closest dwelling; and requirements that the hens are in secure enclosures maintained in clean conditions.
The ordinance won't alter the ban on roosters in neighborhoods.
Nica Poznanovich hailed the changes as "wonderful" and said her organic Community Market throws its "resounding support" behind them.
"Food sovereignty is critically important now, especially as people are losing their jobs and trying to find work," she said, adding that producing one's own food at home "far surpasses what a grocery store can offer."
Paul Miller, who runs a Facebook page for "covert urban chicken raisers" in Santa Rosa, said the fresh eggs, companionship and entertainment value of chickens is invaluable.
Others praised hens' benefits to insect control, table scrap disposal and their contributions to garden fertilizer. Supporters said the birds are easy to care for and the resulting eggs promote "micro produce exchanges" between neighbors. Allowing hens for egg production encourages neighborhoods to be more self-reliant, they said.
In written correspondence to the city, a small number of critics voiced concerns that backyard hens would cause odor, breed vermin, spread disease and attract raccoons and other predators. No one spoke against the ordinance changes Tuesday night.
"Hens seem to have a very special significance in people's lives," said Councilman Jake Ours. "It's not very often we get the chance to make people happy. If we don't vote for this, we're nuts."
Councilwoman Marsha Vas Dupre joked that she hated to see the male gender (roosters) discriminated against, while Councilman Gary Wysocky offered that he already lives in a hen house, so why not vote for the changes.
Gorin, who said a friend of hers has three hens, advised newcomers to the effort to "start small. Moderation for sure," saying her friend is currently overrun with eggs.