The 2015 Utah's Freest Cities Ranking

Running afoul of chicken laws

Many families in Utah like to be self-sufficient and produce and store their own food. This includes planting a garden, tending fruit trees, and even keeping chickens. During World War II, the federal government even heavily promoted and encouraged the keeping of backyard chickens for family food production. Despite this important and simple backyard activity, the ink was barely dry on the treaties from the war before some were pushing for ordinances to regulate the birds.

Today there are ordinances regulating chickens in every city we studied. Clearfield, Ogden, and South Ogden stand out as cities that don't permit chickens in residential zones at all, while 17 other cities have such strict zoning requirements that many smaller lot owners would be prohibited from keeping any chickens. 21 cities require chicken permits, 19 of them charging fees that range from $5 to $75 for up to eight chickens. Of the cities that actually allow chickens, almost all limit the number you may have. The average limit among these cities for a small residential lot is six.

These arbitrary regulations underscore how many city zoning rules attempt to restrict every property owner's rights in the name of speculative and infrequent nuisances. It is unlikely that cities with lax chicken laws see such freedom being "abused" to the detriment of others. Private nuisance complaints enable the city to deal with problems on a case-by-case basis without restricting each person's freedom. This is the approach some cities, like Farmington, take in their animal ordinance. While Farmington's law specifies a suggested number of chickens that is presumed to not be a nuisance, it does not actually impose an arbitrary limit, instead using a qualitative test that allows for balancing the rights of neighboring property owners:

All animals must be kept and maintained in such a manner so as NOT to degrade (below a reasonable standard), the health, safety, noise, odor or sanitation environment of persons dwelling on neighboring lots.

This approach embodies the original rationale for such zoning restrictions—to deal with significant nuisances that rendered such land uses incompatible with those of neighboring lots. Cities with significant animal restrictions would be wise to follow this example as a way to better protect the rights of all property owners involved.

Other common animal restrictions among cities we looked at include dog and beehive limits. Limits on dogs ranged from one to four. Limits on beehives ranged from two to five for cities that allow them while nine cities do not permit them in residential zones at all.

The moral of the story? You better count your chickens before they hatch to avoid running afoul of the law!