A growing trend has emerged across the country of raising chickens in residential neighborhoods. A New Yorker article suggests that the 2000 movie The Natural History of the Chicken helped spur the popularity of chicken raising, but media coverage in Utah, Wisconsin, and Kansas indicates that the practice has reached a tipping point this year. Chicken raising is now so widespread that a market for Amish coops has developed.
News anecdotes indicate that most backyard chicken farmers raise chickens as pets or to take part in the environmental and local food movements. Many cities prohibit agricultural land use in residentially zoned areas, so advocates are working with their city councils to change these laws.
Backyard chicken coops have really taken off in Asheville, NC. The Mountain Xpress quotes the city’s Mayor Jan Davis:
We’re a progressive community, and that’s the thing to do right now, so we’re going to keep chickens. But neglected chickens is something I think we’re going to have a big problem with.
Tolerance for chickens in city limits may be growing because of the current popularity of progressive sentiments, and the chicken movement is certainly good news for homeowners’ property rights. However, it is easy to understand that not everyone wants their next door neighbor to own chickens. Chickens most likely come along with externalities worthy of study by Ronald Coase; for chicken owners the right to have livestock at their homes is a benefit, but to their neighbor who smells and hears the chickens, it is a cost.
This issue provides a clear case for regulation at the neighborhood, rather than the municipal level. While it may be too difficult for neighbors to work out this zoning issue on an individual basis, saying “yes” or “no” to chickens in neighborhoods city-wide is also unlikely to be an optimal solution. Here in Washington, DC, for example, it is easy to imagine that residential chickens in Takoma would make residents better off while in Bethesda backyard chicken coops would make most people worse off. If neighborhoods were allowed to permit chickens by a super-majority vote, however, a good balance of individual liberty and social practicality could result.