Over easy

Zoning Board hears chicken case

Photo submitted to Times Observer Rachel Stowe’s mother, Carol with some of their chickens.

The issue of backyard chickens under Warren County’s Zoning Ordinance was back before a county board on Wednesday.

Up for debate before the Warren County Zoning Hearing Board was a request for a variance filed by Rachel Stowe, 103 N. Main St., Russell.

“The difficulty is my property is just not large enough to adhere to the setback requirements,” Stowe told the board. “To have 40 feet of set back on each side is not possible. When I bought the property, (I) moved the chickens on it (and) hadn’t thought about setbacks.”

She told the board that she consulted her neighbor’s regarding her six chickens and “haven’t heard any issues.”

She added that she doesn’t plan to increase the number of chickens, but she does “want to continue to have them.”

Photo submitted to Times Observer Rachel Stowe with one of her chickens. Back in October, Stowe’s chickens on her property in Russell were before the Zoning and Hearing Board when her request to have the ordinance changed was denied. At the time, the board recommended she file a hardship variance. She did, and it went before the board on Wednesday.

Zoning Officer Mike Lyon told the board that prior regulations required a 150 foot setback which was charged in 2016 to 40 feet.

He said this current issue “all came out of a violation” as he received “some complaints of chickens on her property.”

Lyon said Stowe initially approached the Planning Commission but noted that the Commission “emphatically let her know ‘we’re not going to reopen that for discussion. The ordinance… Is going to stay the way that it is.'”

He told the board that the challenge in this case is “primarily” the “40 foot set back in an R1 (residential) area” and said that the complaints he received were related to the chickens getting loose onto a neighboring property.

Additionally, he noted that Stowe has “a rooster and roosters weren’t allowed per the ordinance.

“My job is to defend the ordinance,” he continued. “One of the criteria you have to meet to grant the variance is that there is a hardship.”

He said the hardship Stowe’s request targets is the “physical hardship of her property,” the shape and size of the lot.

However, he noted that state regulations indicate that “physical circumstances… Must be unique to the property for which the application has been made. (I) can’t dispute she does have a narrow property.”

Lyon presented a map that shows the surrounding parcels.

“Her property is not unique to that neighborhood,” he said. “(The) narrowness of that property is really not a hardship.”

“My zoning opinion, to be compliant with the zoning ordinance, Rachel (Stowe is) not meeting that hardship… And that’s really the gist of the whole thing.”

Pine Grove Township supervisor Charles Morrison said that the township has had several complaints Related to the smell.

“90 percent of the time, people didn’t say nothing,” he said. “Then Summer, people complain about the smell…. I saw, as far as the township goes, there is not enough room to have one. As far as the township, it’s not a place to have a chicken.”

Stowe’s mother, Carol, said “we had no idea that this even existed, that you couldn’t have chickens in our backyard. I guess that’s our issue. (It) feel(s) like a slap in the face. There’s no smell coming from her backyard. (We) don’t know who complained…. Now you’re saying we can’t do what we want with our properties because of these zoning laws.”

“What you’re asking for is a major variance,” Lyon said, “a huge amount…. (The) narrowness of her lot is not uncommon to the neighborhood. Her lot does not qualify in my opinion as zoning officer because it is not uncommon.”

“I want to reiterate I’m not the bad guy…. My responsibility is to defend the ordinance as it exists.”

Board member Dennis Johnson asked if a precedent would be set should they grant the variance request.

“Setting a precedent, that’s a huge danger with this hearing,” Lyon said.

Stowe discussed the rural nature of the county.

“I can’t change my properties around. I don’t think it’s such a bad thing” for people to have a chicken or two. “Going through the variance process is enough of a deterrent on its own. I think this is a small thing I’m asking for. (I) realize it impacts many people.”

The board’s solicitor, Tim Bevevino, said he was “very sympathetic to Ms. Stowe” but said that “my advice would be that you should not, beyond what the zoning officer has told you, the language of the statute…. (There is) case law in this area that suggests that the shape or dimension of a lot are never unique physical characteristics and are never a hardship. I don’t see a way a variance can be granted consistent with the ordinance.”

“I agree with what the law says here,” Board member Ed Atwood said. “I can take you all over the place and show you chickens and nobody does anything about it…. I understand where you’re coming from and I don’t think it will set a precedent….”

Stowe said she previously addressed the Planning Commission and “was told there’s no way of changing this,” arguing that it is “unfair” that the law cannot be changed.

The board then unanimously denied the request for a variance.