Basalt debates chicken policy
August 10, 2011
BASALT – Basalt resident Jen Riffle’s eight chickens got clucky last night when they won a reprieve from getting kicked out of town, but it might be temporary if they cause a stir.
The Basalt Town Council decided in a split decision to let Riffle keep her hens even though she constructed a coop in the backyard of her home despite being told not to by the town code enforcement officer. Riffle lives on Sopris Drive, one of the main residential areas of “Old Town” Basalt.
The council decided 3-2 in a work session to let Riffle keep the hens for one year, then the board will review a fowl policy. If there are any complaints from Riffle’s neighbors or any cases of predators causing a problem in the neighborhood specifically because of the chickens, she will have to get rid of them.
“You get one or two strikes, then it’s bye-bye chickens,” Councilman Pete McBride said.
In addition, the town will ban anyone else from establishing a coop during the one-year experiment.
Riffle, a private organic chef, urged the board to let her prove that chickens can be compatible with town living. She has no noisy roosters. She spent $816 building a coop that will allegedly discourage predators. Chicken wire is embedded deep underground to prevent varmints like raccoons from digging to enter the coop. Additional wire is electrified with just enough juice to fend off everything from bears to dogs without causing them long-term harm.
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During the council meeting, Riffle held up a sign that said “Save Panties” and featured a hand-drawn picture of a plump chicken wearing frilly underwear. Panties is the name of one of her flock, along with Mellow, Cow, Alphina, Mego, Blue Bantam, Sunny Side and Mrs. T.
“Let’s not shut it down tonight,” Riffle told the council, lobbying for an experiment with her coop. “I’m doing it with your knowledge. I’m not a rogue-chicken-keeper.”
Riffle said her “lovely ladies” should start laying eggs in about four months. She invested in them because she believes in raising and growing her own food, and to educate kids and adults about small-scale farming.
McBride was the council’s main chicken fan. He proposed using Riffle’s “chicken palace” as the experiment to see if problems with predators or neighbors arise. Councilwomen Jacque Whitsitt and Katie Schwoerer went along with the concept although they expressed concerns about predators. Schwoerer said she doesn’t want the Colorado Division of Wildlife to have to shoot any bears or other predators because they became an alleged nuisance for trying to get at the chickens.
Whitsitt suggested the town prohibit anyone else in town from getting chickens for one year but they make an allowance or “grandfather” in Riffle.
“I would like to grandfather in the chicken people,” Whitsitt said. “I have a hard time taking people’s chickens away when they already have them.”
Mayor Leroy Duroux and Councilwoman Anne Freedman wanted a ban on chickens, with no experiment and no allowance for Riffle. They argued that chickens aren’t appropriate in a high-density town because of smell, noise and predators.
Duroux, a Basalt native who grew up in the days when it was a small ranching and farming town, said his family had chickens that predators regularly gobbled.
“Depending on how hungry the predators are, they’re going to find a way into the chicken coop,” he said.
He also had unpleasant memories of cleaning coops. “Whenever you got in trouble, the penance was to clean out the chicken coop, and it was penance,” Duroux said.
Riffle’s case finally brought the chicken question home to roost in Basalt. She noted that numerous people are raising chickens without the town’s consent.
“There’s a lot of rouge chickens in Basalt. They’re doing OK. They’re thriving,” she said.
McBride agreed. He said he is awakened nearly every morning by a rooster somewhere in his neighborhood.
Riffle didn’t initially plan to go rogue. Information supplied by town staff and Riffle indicates that Riffle talked to town staff last spring about establishing a coop. She was told the first step was to prove she has consent from all her neighbors. She did and the issue advanced further than it usually does. Community safety officer Michael Hutton, also the town code enforcement officer, then consulted with state wildlife officers and determined the coop would present too much of a risk of attracting predators. He denied Riffle’s request on May 31.
She built the coop anyway. Hutton discovered it July 7 while investigating a complaint about improper trash storage elsewhere in the neighborhood. He ordered Riffle to remove the chickens and advised that she might face a fine. The town planning staff asked that enforcement be postponed while the issue was hashed out with the council.
If there are no complaints about Riffle’s flock after one year, the town will consider amending its code to define when and where chickens are allowed in Basalt. Until then, the town will allow any existing chickens to remain in town, assuming there are no complaints or wildlife issues.
It was unclear how the town government intends to enforce a moratorium on new chickens.