Umatilla County Gets Pushback on Plan to Restrict Fowl, Small Animals

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Josephine Pace, 9, of Milton-Freewater, hangs out with her rooster, Bud, on May 11, 2023, at weigh-in day of the M-F Jr. Show in Milton-Freewater. The Umatilla County Planning Commission in 2024 is considering a proposal to limit residents to two roosters per tax lot in rural residential areas. (Yasser Marte/East Oregonian file photo)

People living on small or hobby farms in Umatilla County may need to get their chickens in a row.

The Umatilla County Planning Commission is proposing amendments to its development code regarding animal density standards on single family dwellings that aren’t classified as farmland and are outside city limits and urban growth boundaries in the county.

The county planned to hold a public hearing on the amendments Thursday, April 25, at the Media Room of the Umatilla County Justice Center in Pendleton. But the crowd that showed up was too big for the space, so the planning department rescheduled the hearing for May 2 at 6 p.m. in the Vert Auditorium, 480 SW Dorion Ave., Pendleton.

Megan Davchevski, the county’s planning division manager, said the code has not changed since 1972. But proposals to update to the code are facing public backlash online.

There are two main amendments to the code: allowing more small livestock per acre and restricting the number of poultry, other fowl and rabbits on a tax lot.

As it stands now, the county allows two livestock animals per acre. The amendment would double that number for smaller livestock, such as goats and sheep, to four per acre.

But restricting poultry can be problematic, Davchevski said. The code says these animals must be confined on no more than 25% of the total lot area, but there is no limit to the number of animals someone can have in that area.

“If somebody has 4 acres of rural residential land, they could keep as many chickens as they wanted on a 1-acre lot,” Davchevski said. “And as you can imagine, this has become really problematic in some neighborhoods where people have, like, hundreds of chickens and roosters confined in a really small space. And specifically, the roosters are very, very noisy.”

Residents have called the county commissioners and the planning division to complain, she said, and have told them they can’t enjoy their homes because of the noise from neighbors’ roosters. She said it was the commissioners who asked the planning division to add this proposal to its work plan.

The new rule would limit the number of poultry, fur-bearing animals or similarly sized domestic birds to 40 per lot, including up to two roosters.

“It’s really rare that somebody would have that many chickens or rabbits or other fowl,” Davchevski said. “Something else that’s been existing in our code is that you can’t have a poultry farm in the residential zones, so the larger poultry operations are allowed in our farm zones, but not so much in the residential zones.”

Davchevski said most people already will be in compliance with the change proposed. And if they aren’t — if they haven’t been in compliance with the code now — it’s not likely the county will suddenly cite them for noncompliance. The county’s code enforcement employee is busy with other tasks, she said, and doesn’t go around checking every single tax lot.

“Where this comes into play is when we have extreme situations where neighbors are calling code enforcement because some of these roosters are keeping them up day and night,” she said, “or somebody’s not managing their livestock well, and so they’ve got piles of manure that are four feet tall and there are excessive flies. Those are the properties that get enforcement.”

When code enforcement receives a complaint, it will be investigated before any other steps are taken.

“If a property is found in violation, code enforcement sends a warning letter and works with the property owner to bring the property into compliance,” she said. “Only after a period of time with no progress is a citation issued, followed by a court date with a judge.”

On Facebook, in community groups such as “Whats Happening Pendleton?” and “Pendleton Farm to Table,” people have been discussing the proposals, saying they will negatively affect small farm owners because it would restrict their choice in kind and number of animals they can have on their properties.

One outspoken opponent has been Jodi Hinsley, who lives on a 4-acre parcel of land near Hermiston and owns five chickens. Hinsley also said she has been a planning commission member in the past.

“There are a ton of codes and ordinances throughout the city, county, whatever, and we don’t know the majority of them,” she said. “Bringing this to light is making us nervous. It feels like they’re trying to dictate what you can and cannot do on your own property.”

Hinsley said the new language is vague, not addressing how irrigation can impact the ability of a farm to support more animals and what the wording changes could mean for mobile homes.

She also has concerns about limiting the quantity of animals people can have at all. Some people don’t have a lot of animals but take poor care of them, and some people have many animals and take great care of them. It feels like something that could be dealt with through a regulatory agency, she said, instead of a blanket code for everyone.

Also, if roosters are the problem, she added, limiting the number to two doesn’t guarantee there won’t be noise issues, as even one rooster can be loud and obnoxious.

“If we’re really just addressing roosters, then let’s figure out a way to just address roosters because this has turned into a whole lot more than just roosters,” she said. “We need to look at a better way to deal with this and let the community have a voice on what that could look like.”

Matt and Ginger Richmond live near Hermiston and oppose the changes for similar reasons to Hinsley.

“I think it’s a way for them to be lazy about enforcing code,” Matt Richmond said. “I moved to a rural area so I could not be incorporated and this development code is dangerously close to incorporation. Nobody likes more regulation.”

The Richmonds, who own about 30 chickens and one rooster as well as horses and a donkey, added they worry about what the amendments mean for people who run businesses from their homes that don’t fit with the code.

For example, they know someone who runs a horse training business on his property and aren’t sure if the number of horses he owns fits with the development code — either the one from 1972 or the proposed amended version. If he were noncompliant, Ginger Richmond said, it’s possible he could not only face repercussions with the county but it could also ruin his livelihood.

The changes will not affect people with cows and horses, Davchevski said, nor those who live in farm zones or who have a farm deferral tax status through special assessment laws focused on agriculture and forestry.

“We’re really not changing that much,” she said. “For people that have less than 40 chickens and less than two roosters, it’s really not going to affect them at all. I really hope that people, if they go on our website and they have questions about it, that they reach out to our office.”

Some people on social media suggested instead of changing the development code, the county should deal with situations of animal neglect. But Davchevski explained that would be a matter for the sheriff’s office, not code enforcement.

“Our code enforcement program, they can only enforce county ordinances, and so the development code is one of those ordinances,” she said.

If the noisy roosters aren’t in violation of county code, there is nothing the county can do to address the matter. And with no limits on the number of roosters or chickens living within that 25% space of a property, it can lead to a significant problem with no way for the county to follow through on noise nuisance complaints.

1 COMMENT

  1. On 207 there are two places that are raising roosters for fighting.
    These are both visible from 207 heading down from Punkin Center .
    Training roosters to fight is against the law look it up.
    If they say they are not fighting the roosters why so many roosters no chickens

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