Is Atherton rural enough for backyard chickens?

Council can't decide on new rules governing chicken-keeping

Should Atherton residents who want to keep hens have to submit to annual inspections of their coops? Are five hens too many for a property under an acre?

Those questions and more remain unanswered as Atherton City Council members exhibited one of their rare recent differences of opinion when they met Wednesday night, Feb. 17, to consider liberalizing the town's current regulations for raising chickens. They ended up continuing the matter to March.

Currently, chickens are legally allowed in Atherton only on lots of 80,000 square feet or more, which is close to two acres, where up to 40 chickens are allowed.

By comparison, in next-door Menlo Park, residents are allowed to keep 50 chickens (or any other poultry including geese, ducks, turkeys, peafowl, guinea fowl, pigeons, squabs and doves) per quarter acre, with no minimum lot size.

The regulations proposed by Atherton's Planning Commission would have allowed five hens on lots of between 1/2 and one acre, 10 hens on properties of between one and two acres and 20 hens on properties larger than two acres. On properties of more than two acres, if chickens are kept for educational purposes, as they are at Sacred Heart Prep, up to 40 hens would be allowed. Roosters would not be legal anywhere in Atherton.

The proposal would allow chicken runs and coops only within the legal building envelope for a main house.

The staff report by Lisa Costa Sanders laid out a major issue: "While the town seeks to maintain a rural character ... developed properties often tell a different story," she wrote. "While residential in character, many properties are large, expansive, and in many cases, decidedly non-rural."

Council member Bill Widmer said he had spoken to "a number of major builders in our area." They would prefer not to have chickens in Atherton, he said, "because it could devalue people's property."

But, he said, with proper regulations, he was willing to allow a few hens in town. "If somebody wants to have chickens, then they should have chickens," he said. "They do make some noise and it is irritating to some people."

Councilmember Cary Wiest argued that no hens should be allowed on less than an acre. "I agree that there's a nice charm to the education component," he said, speaking of residents who said they wanted to have hens to teach their children about food and animals.

"I also believe there is a proper place for chickens," he said. In some parts of town, he said, people live on estates. "I don't think people in those settings want to hear or smell chickens," he said. "Anything less than an acre, I would say no chickens."

"To me it's less of a noise issue and more of a smell issue," he said. "It's not fair to the neighbors."

Councilmember Rick DeGolia, who had brought up the whole issue after an Atherton resident asked the town to look at its chicken-keeping rules, spoke in favor of more liberal regulations. "I think we need to create a reasonable ordinance that allows people to have a reasonable number of chickens," he said. He asked to have the setbacks relaxed and also spoke against inspecting the coops. Inspection "seems unnecessary to me," he said. "I really don't want this to become a big bureaucratic provision that uses a lot of staff time."

Councilman Mike Lempres, who attended the meeting via a conference call, favored allowing chickens on a half-acre lot. "People should be able to have chickens. That's a fairly sizable lot," he said. He supported adjusting the setback a little bit.

But Mayor Elizabeth Lewis differed. "I think half an acre is a little too small," she said. She also pointed out, however, that the entire town probably was not about to be overrun by hens. "I cannot imagine that the whole town of Atherton, if we do this ... (is) going to go out and get chickens," she said.

In the end, the council asked for a revised ordinance to consider in March with eased setbacks, and a reduction in the number of chickens allowed on a half-acre from five to three.

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


5 people like this
Posted by Gern
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Feb 18, 2016 at 12:38 pm

Keeping chickens has been all the rage in Menlo Park of late, where most lots are far smaller than half an acre. We were entertaining the idea until we cared for a neighbor's five hens for a week, and were reminded how dismayingly prolific these birds are with their droppings (the neighbor's hens were allowed to roam free during the day and the backyard was all but unusable). You really, really must crave fresh eggs to carry through with this and I can't imagine there are that many people in Atherton willing to put up with the mess, regardless of lot size, to warrant regulating hen husbandry (our neighbor lasted perhaps six months before the mess became too much and the birds were sold).


5 people like this
Posted by Menlo Park Neighbor
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Feb 18, 2016 at 4:28 pm

Chickens are making a comeback across america - particularly in backyards. People are over-reacting about them. I live on a small lot (<< 0.5 acre), and have had chickens for more than 8 years I believe. They are great fun, and the eggs!! So good. Dogs, pool filters, and local ravens and scrub jays may more noise than chickens. When they get bothered you get some occasional clucking - of course we're talking about just HENS. My neighbors didn't even know I had them for quite a while. I have no idea what they mean by smelling chickens. My wife would never let me keep chickens if they smelled. A neighbor will never smell them. If they do, then that person is not taking proper care of the chickens. I don't know if I would be happy without my small garden and my chickens.

Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter.
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Feb 18, 2016 at 5:48 pm

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.

MP Neighbor:

do you keep them cooped up at all times?

13 people like this
Posted by Fly-on-the-wall
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Feb 18, 2016 at 6:43 pm

Menlo Park Neighbor has it right! Atherton's City Council is making a big to-do about nothing. The Backyard Chicken hobby has become a national pastime and Atherton's Big Brother attitude is completely out of place. This whole topic should have been handled with common sense and professional advice back in September when the Atherton Planning Commission discussed the topic at their regular meeting. In the audience and among the speakers were two veterinarians, one who is a "Poultry Advocate" and the other who is the official San Mateo County Public Health Veterinarian. They offered good comments and a willingness to be a legitimate resource for all concerns regarding poultry flocks on suburban lots. There are backyard chickens in every town on the peninsula and all with smaller lots than Atherton. Chickens are quiet and their inconspicuous droppings are definitely not smelly. The many hawks, crows and jays in our yards and trees make far more noise and produce more droppings than mere domestic poultry. Barking dogs, predatory cats and wandering wildlife cause way more noise and grief than gentle, productive pet chickens. Most families will have five or fewer hens; big deal! Stop all this silly arguing about coop and pen dimension and placement nonsense. The recommendation for having "chicken inspectors" is beyond the pale. Chickens are a renewable resource, they teach children about the responsibility of caring for domestic animals that reward their owners with a prize egg each day. I'm yet to meet a neighbor so crotchety they would complain about something as inconsequential as a few laying hens. Have our councilmen nothing better to do than belabor this point with multiple meetings and regulations? Let common sense prevail and stop the nonsense. Chickens are a benefit of private property rights and they create no burden to neighbors. Please stop making a mountain out of a mole-hill.

2 people like this
Posted by MP Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Feb 19, 2016 at 8:15 am

Finally, a case where Atherton residents can't complain about a change destroying the town's rural character - no wonder they're silent; they have no idea what else to say.

13 people like this
Posted by Henrietta Cluckington
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Feb 19, 2016 at 9:51 am

Fly-on-the-Wall rules the roost!

In addition to producing a high quality egg every 24 hours, hens recycle food and yard waste keeping it out of landfills as it composts into an highly organic soil builder for your garden. A single chicken can bio recycle about seven pounds of food residuals in a month.

They serve as an organic pest cleanup crew by devouring flies and other unwanted insects. They also assist the gardener by clearing out weeds.
Raising hens in the back yard is a humane alternative to factory farming.
A small flock of chickens requires only a few minutes of your time a day.

Back yard chickens are sustainable, entertaining, educational and might even prevent the clinical depression associated with listening to the "chicken manure" being spread by a few of our city council members!

2 people like this
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of another community
on Feb 19, 2016 at 1:23 pm

Gern - your friends could've went about it in a much better way. While we had a couple hens who roamed, we generally kept a portion of the yard separated for the hens, and they had a their henhouse within those confines. You just have to be willing to build a separate area for them with chicken wire and posts.

2 people like this
Posted by Louise68
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Feb 19, 2016 at 5:47 pm

Atherton us "rural"? By what definition of "rural"? Atherton is just a very very wealthy suburb with large lots-- nothing more.

A friend lives in the country, in a truly rural area, and has a flock of chickens. She told me that chickens kill rats! Didn't know that! So -- they are great for rat control, as well as insect control.

BTW -- at least one coyote has been seen in Atherton recently -- -- in Holbrook Palmer Park -- so please please please keep all chickens in a coop at night. )Unless you just want to raise your chickens to be coyote food.)

I like the idea of backyard chickens.

2 people like this
Posted by Wish I could have chickens
a resident of another community
on Feb 19, 2016 at 5:54 pm

I had the good fortune of hen-sitting for neighbors while they were on vacation. Though Blondie is no longer producing eggs, she is a beloved family pet. I would let her out of her roost in the morning and she would cluck and cackle at me as I filled her food tray and then follow me around the yard until I sat down so that she could have a few minutes of cuddling. Blondie has also bonded with the newly acquired family dog and they do quite well together. I wish I had the room in my yard for chickens, not only for their eggs but for their friendship.

Developers who want to reshape Atherton, get off your high horses. Your Google gazillionaire clients can sleep through a few clucks in the morning.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of another community
on Feb 22, 2016 at 11:40 am

This is a fun thread! I didn't know a coyote was seen at HP Park in Atherton. Lots of unleashed little dogs there and other critters that'd make tasty snacks.

Blondie the hen sounds adorable. Reminds me of the PBS documentary about chickens.

The bottom line is that a city doesn't have to have rural areas for residents to keep hens.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

Contemporary Indian restaurant, Ettan, headed to Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 5 comments | 6,188 views

Good News: The New Menlo Park Rail Subcommittee Hits A Home Run
By Dana Hendrickson | 12 comments | 1,740 views

Premarital and Couples: Tips for Hearing (Listening) and Being Known
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,442 views

Two degrees can do all that?
By Sherry Listgarten | 8 comments | 1,062 views

Tame, Maim and Claim the Wild Sea Vegetable
By Laura Stec | 7 comments | 636 views


Register today!

On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More