Rooster dispute could spur ban
- Published: January 30, 2020
Should roosters be banned in Yellow Springs?
Planning Commission began considering a villagewide rooster ban at its Jan. 14 meeting. The discussion was preliminary, with several steps to go — including the eventual passage of any new ordinances by Village Council — before such a ban could become part of local code. Roosters are male chickens; hens, which are female chickens, would not be included in the ban.
The proposal was brought forward by Planning and Zoning Administrator Denise Swinger based on an ongoing situation involving noise complaints related to crowing roosters at a Northwood Drive residence. While the specific situation was not discussed at the Planning Commission meeting, it came into public view later in the week with a letter from the roosters’ owner, Amy Osborne, and a response from the zoning office included in the Council packet for Village Council’s Jan. 21 meeting.
Osborne’s letter, emailed to Council member Kevin Stokes, criticized the Village’s handling of rooster noise complaints, including through local police enforcement, while the zoning office’s response summarized events and Village actions.
“We were very happy to move into the village in late July 2019 but now are questioning our choice based on the village’s actions,” Osborne wrote in her letter.
For its part, the zoning office’s letter states, “This issue has gone on for five months, during which the Osbornes have had sufficient time to abate the noise.”
The issue was not discussed during this week’s Council meeting, however.
Stemming from the same situation, the local zoning office has also proposed streamlining Yellow Springs’ noise ordinance by eliminating the requirement for specially trained noise control personnel and simplifying sound measurement procedures.
“I don’t think we should have to have a specially trained person to do it,” Swinger said of measuring noise levels with a calibrated device. She added that training was very specific and not available in the Midwest, based on her research.
Both proposals will be taken up by Planning Commission at later meetings. Other items discussed at the Jan. 14 meeting were proposals for new stormwater guidelines based in part on the local effects of global climate change, and new regulations for downtown sandwich boards, as well as a conditional use permit for a local Transient Guest Lodging, or TGL, on South Walnut Street.
Commission members present at last week’s meeting were Frank Doden, chair; Dean Pallotta, alternate; and Marianne MacQueen, Council liaison. Not present was Susan Stiles. MacQueen recused herself during the discussion of the TGL, as she operates one in her home, with Council alternate Lisa Kreeger stepping into the discussion.
Potential rooster ban
Yellow Springs does not currently prohibit local residents from keeping farm animals on their property.
“We don’t have regulations against chickens, roosters or goats,” Swinger said at the Jan. 14 meeting.
As a result, no count of local backyard livestock is available, though chicken coops can be observed at a handful of residences around town. During the Planning Commission discussion, Kreeger said that she lives near Antioch Farm, and isn’t disturbed by the roosters.
“I hear the roosters, but they don’t bother me,” she said. “A close residential neighborhood might be different.”
However, Village government is not totally hands-off on the issue of animals. The zoning office or the Yellow Springs Police Department will become involved when neighbors complain about noise or odors from animals kept in residential areas, Swinger explained.
Animal odors are regulated under the animal portion of the general offense code, while animal sounds are regulated under the noise ordinance. Violations in both cases are minor misdemeanors and can result in citations for owners.
But few noise complaints rise to that level, according to Yellow Springs Police Chief Brian Carlson.
“We try to handle it in the spirit of working things out,” he said.
Local officers respond to all noise complaints that come into police dispatch — not just ones about animals — by going to the scene and checking out the situation, Carlson said. Often the noise is “gone on arrival,” or GOA, meaning no sounds are present for officers to investigate. When there are repeated complaints about the same noise, officers will go the scene with a sound level measuring device. The Village owns such a device, and last fall purchased a calibration machine for it.
Village code prohibits noise above certain decibel levels, with a variety of exemptions, including for lawn mowers, power tools and other equipment. The sound measuring device records decibel levels.
When complaints continue or sound levels are found to exceed specified limits, the Village’s expectation is that the responsible party will abate the noise, according to Swinger.
“They have to abate the noise somehow,” she said at the Jan. 14 meeting.
While farm animals are not specifically banned by Village code, certain types of animal noises are.
As part of the existing noise ordinance, residents are prohibited from “owning, possessing or harboring any animal or bird that, frequently or for continued duration, generates sounds that create a noise disturbance … across a residential real property line.”
“That would seem to include a rooster,” Planning Commission Chair Doden observed at the meeting.
Commission members indicated a willingness to consider a rooster ban, as well as changes to the noise ordinance to simplify enforcement.
Swinger clarified that such a ban would apply to residential districts within Yellow Springs, and would not affect the Antioch Farm, or the King Street homestead farm owned by Dan Dixon and Sherryl Kostic.
Few rooster bans currently exist in Ohio, based on zoning office research, Swinger said. However, keeping livestock in suburban and urban areas has become a subject of lively (and sometimes acrimonious) debate as backyard homesteading has gained in popularity, according to recent online research by the News on the topic.
In our area, Beavercreek City Council affirmed its ban of chickens in 2016 after a proposal to overturn it. An Ohio court of appeals upheld a residential chicken ban in the northern Ohio community of Columbiana last fall. Contrariwise, a bill introduced to the Ohio House of Representatives last March, HB 124, proposes to block local governments from banning small livestock in residential areas. That bill, however, explicitly excludes roosters.
“Roosters are controversial depending on municipality,” according to Ohio State University Extension Educator Tim McDermott, responding to a question from the News. McDermott added that Columbus does not allow the birds. While roosters are required for sexual reproduction, they are not needed for chicken egg production, he wrote in an email.
Village Clerk Judy Kintner noted that roosters have come up in clerk trainings she has attended as “one of the biggest headaches in municipalities.” Their loud crowing can create tensions between neighbors, she said.
Details of local dispute
And that seems to be the case in Yellow Springs.
Amy Osborne and her husband and son moved to the village in July with a small flock of hens and four roosters. The family, in particular her 11-year-old son, had previously kept a much larger flock of chickens at their Cincinnati home. The chickens are part of an effort to develop “a small urban homestead” on their property on Northwood Drive, which could eventually include bees and goats, according to Osborne by phone last week. She and her husband, Anthony Wolking, are leasing to own the property, she said.
She received complaints about the roosters’ crowing from a neighbor beginning in August, and went back and forth with the individuals by email, she said. The property owner was also involved in those conversations, she said. The family found new homes for two of the roosters as a result, and Osborne believed the issue was settled.
But the neighbors contacted the zoning office later in August with a noise complaint, according to the zoning office’s letter on the matter. (The complainants do not wish to speak publicly on the issue.) The letter indicates a substantial level of disturbance, as reported by the complainants.
“The roosters would crow continuously throughout the day, which disturbed the peace of the complainants when on their back porch, as well as inside their home. We received a total of five recordings taken by the complainants from their property,” the zoning office’s letter states.
But Osborne disagrees with that characterization. The noise is “spontaneous and intermittent,” she said, and “doesn’t last more than a minute at a time.”
Not all neighbors find the noise disruptive, she added.
“We’ve gotten support from neighbors who’ve said, ‘Keep up the good fight,’” she said.
According to the zoning office, most of the complaints have been made by one household, with “confirmation from five neighbors (including the complainants)” that the noise creates a disruption.
According to Osborne, she and her family have taken steps to address the noise, by re-homing two of the roosters and moving the remaining two to a playhouse structure on the back of their property. As is the case with other residences on the street, the back portion of the lot is in Miami Township, not Yellow Springs.
And because of that, Osborne contends that the Village is improperly applying its noise ordinance to noise that is occurring outside of village limits.
“It’s frustrating. Taxpayer dollars are being spent on an issue that’s outside the village,” she said.
But the zoning office’s letter states the opinion of the Village solicitor that “because the township portion of the lot is tied to the village address, and the persons who were harboring the fowl reside in the village, the noise ordinance does still apply.”
After communicating with the zoning office in September, Osborne said that she and her family did not hear anything further until December, when local police began the first of a series of seven attempts to monitor and measure the roosters’ noise. The first instance of monitoring in the predawn hours of Dec. 11 came “as quite a shock,” Osborne wrote in her letter. Osborne contends that a police officer was shining a flashlight in her backyard, though Chief Carlson disputes that, indicating that police were in the adjacent undeveloped lot, owned by the complainant.
More daytime instances of monitoring took place, with a final instance of monitoring occurring around 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 28. At that time, police were in a car left running in front of Osborne’s house, she said. She and her husband were frightened, she wrote in her letter, and he called 911, which connected to the officer in the car outside her home.
“We became very aware of how this had become grossly inappropriate,” she wrote in her letter. “I was very aware that while we were originally feeling harassed, this felt well beyond and quite menacing.”
Asked by the News about the enforcement actions, Chief Carlson said he put a stop to the monitoring after the Dec. 28 attempt.
“It was turning into more than it needed to be,” he said. “People should feel safe when we’re around.”
Local police obtained two readings on the sound level device, both slightly above the Village’s decibel limits for daytime and nighttime, he said. The multiple attempts were necessary because the roosters were not always crowing when officers were present.
Osborne argued that police did not conduct the sound level measurement appropriately, as per the measurement conditions spelled out in Yellow Springs’ existing code. Those conditions are among the provisions of the code that the zoning office seeks to modify.
“I know how to measure decibel readings,” Osborne said. “Sitting in a car won’t do it,” she added, referring to measurement by police from their vehicles.
As the matter stands now, Osborne and Wolking have until Jan. 30 to remove the roosters from their property, according to a letter dated Jan. 13 from Village solicitor Christopher Conard.
“Based upon my understanding of the evidence and the plain language of the Village Code, probable cause exists to cite you to Mayor’s Court for the noise violation based upon your harboring of a bird(s) which creates a noise disturbance, in this case rooster(s),” Conard’s letter states.
That enforcement is happening despite efforts by the Village to involve mediation, which the complainants have declined, and to locate an alternative home for the roosters, according to Chief Carlson.
“We were really hoping to resolve this,” he said.
But Osborne said she feels pressured by the Village’s efforts to require her to abate the noise by giving away her birds.
“The lack of clarity is frustrating and feels manipulative, as if we are being coerced into giving away our animals after we were told we were permitted to keep them as long as they are off the village parcel of land,” she wrote, referring to a previous statement by the zoning office that Village noise ordinances apply only to Yellow Springs.
Osborne clarified to the News that the roosters are more like pets than livestock, especially for her son.
“They’re really pets,” she said.
But they also serve a purpose for her flock, and help her family carry out their chicken-raising in a humane way, she added.
“I have my roosters to protect the flock and procreate,” she said.
Rather than buying chicks from a hatchery, where male birds are killed, she prefers to raise male and female birds from hatching chicks. Her son has been involved in this process, she wrote in her letter, “learning valuable life lessons but … now gaining a skewed perspective of the situation based on recent interactions.”
Asked by the News why the Village was seeking not just to address this particular situation but to formulate a village-wide ban on roosters, Village Manager Josué Salmerón noted that Yellow Springs government is “complaint-driven,” and this complaint “shows there is a legitimate issue” related to roosters in residential areas.
“I believe there are times when a wholesale approach is needed to eliminate the problem,” he said.
A rooster ban would “remove doubt and ambiguity,” he added.
“We’re not anti-rooster,” Salmerón clarified. “We’re not anti-anything. When issues arise, we have to deal with them.”
But Osborne said she’s disappointed with how Yellow Springs has dealt with her birds, and her family.
“If the village applies this level of coercion and is willing to remove and/or rewrite valuable ordinances to acquiesce to one resident’s consistent complaints, particularly outside of their purview, what would the impact be for community members who do not have the wherewithal to protect their rights?” she wrote in a follow-up email to the News.