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.