Bremerton opens the coop to backyard hens

The Bremerton City Council voted 6-3 Wednesday to legalize four backyard hens per single family residence.

The measure was passed with a sunset clause amendment that will require the City Council to assess the effectiveness of the law in June 2012.

At least 15 supporters of the measure wearing chicken stickers - and some with posters of support - attended the meeting and applauded the law's passage.

"I was really nervous," chicken activist Deborah McDaniel said after the meeting, expressing her relief. "I'm tickled pink."

Councilman Roy Runyon, who championed the measure, was joined by councilmembers Dianne Robinson, Jim McDonald, Adam Brockus, Greg Wheeler and Will Maupin in support of the ordinance. Councilmembers Carol Arends, Cecil McConnell and Nick Wofford voted "no."

"The only thing this ordinance is going to accomplish is to legalize people who have chickens illegally," McConnell said.

Maupin said his vote depended on the presence of the sunset clause, saying it will force the Council to address any problems that may arise from the new law.

Runyon, Wheeler and Robinson opposed the sunset clause, with Wheeler saying that the Council will have the power to amend the law without the clause and rehashing a chicken debate would be a waste of time.

One Bremerton resident, Bob Perkins, spoke against the measure, saying that "chickens are dirty birds."

"I'm just concerned that when the novelty wears off, we'll have chickens running free into their neighbors' yard," he said.

Three chicken advocates spoke in favor of the measure.

The vote was taken after a nine-month campaign by chicken supporters to legalize backyard hens. After the Council's Public Safety and Planning Committee rejected the measure introduced by Runyon in March, a group of activists drafted a citizens' initiative and collected public signatures as a way of pressuring the City Council to pass its own law, lest the initiative hit the ballot in a special election.

The Kitsap County Auditor's office estimated in July a special election would cost the city between $70,000 and $80,000.

In August, the group's 1,300 signatures were deemed invalid because they were not accompanied by a date. The petitioners since started over, collecting between 600 and 1,000 signatures.

The Council revisited the issue in October, this time with more regulations, including a $12.50 annual license requirement for chicken owners - the same required for a cat - and an increased setback of hen houses from neighboring property lines, from five to 10 feet. The Council also added a means of revoking a chicken owner's license. Those who violate the city code three times in two years will lose their chicken license and have the option of appealing their license revocation with the Bremerton Municipal Court.

The Kitsap Humane Society will be the primary code enforcement agency, Runyon said.

Now that the Council passed its own measure, the signature-gathering will come to an end, petition organizer Patty Zwick said.

"We did it," she said after the meeting, saying of the petitions, "I can burn them in a big pile."

Zwick and McDaniel said Wednesday's vote proved that grassroots activism can be successful.

The new law will take effect as early as Nov. 18.

"Best of all, chicken owners won't be criminals anymore," chicken supporter Carolee Valentine said.

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