January 30, 2012

Defending Your Flock Against the HOA (aka your neighbor doesn’t like your chickens)

Recently, I had the unfortunate experience of having to defend my dear chickens at my neighborhood Homeowners Association (HOA) Board meeting. After numerous complaints from a single neighbor, my husband and I had to attend a hearing in which the fate of our chickens was in the hands of 3 unknown Board Members. Though I won’t go into about the actual specifics about my case (that’s a different post), I did realize I had a new wealth of information to share with other folks who may be up against a similar threat. Here are a few tips to help you navigate through the murky waters of HOA rules.

Tip # 1: Do your research
This may sound pretty obvious, but knowing the rules is the most important part of building a case for your chickens. Read your CCRs carefully. Don’t just pay attention to the rules about animals, think beyond the box. Have some knowledge in your back pocket. 
  •   What are the proper channels one should take when filing a complaint against a neighbor? In our case, the HOA encourages neighbors to resolve issues on their own. Our neighbor never contacted us with her concerns about the noise our chickens made. Knowing that the HOA encourages neighbors to deal with issues on their own shows that she a) doesn’t know the rules, and b)if she knew them, she didn’t act upon them.
  • Find out what the proper dispute resolution sequence is (for my HOA, it was having a hearing, then mediation, then arbitration). It’s good to know what steps you’ll need to take in case they deny your case.
  • Are there height/dimension limits to any coops built in your yard? Do they need to be a certain distance from your neighbors’ houses? This is important to know. For example, if our coop was another 2 feet taller, we would have had to get approval from the HOA to build it.
  •  How much authority does the Board really have? In our case, the Board had the final say on issues – meaning one cannot get a measure put on a ballot for the neighborhood to vote on. Some HOA’s allow members to gather enough signatures to get something on the ballot (how democratic!) This is worth looking into just in case the Board decides against you – you could still get a petition going and leave the vote to the masses. 
  • Get your city and/or county’s municipal code, and be sure to include it with your materials. Many CCR’s defer to the municipal code (be sure you don’t have more chickens than you are allowed!) Thankfully for us, our city doesn’t have a restriction on the number of hens you can keep for non-commercial purposes. 
  • If your HOA is run by a management company, get to know the person that works with your Board. If they are friendly, use their knowledge of the CCRs to help build your case. This proved to be a great resource for me - I was told there was a 1987 CCR that prohibited poultry in our neighborhood (which changed in 2007). I never would have known that if I hadn’t *gently* prodded my contact. 

Tip #2: Get the support of your neighbors
I can’t stress this one enough. Thankfully in our neighborhood, everyone loves our chickens. It was really easy to pass a document around for their signature, stating that they did not believe our chickens were loud or a nuisance to the neighborhood. If you do get people to sign a document, be sure to include specific language related to the CCR’s. I used “loud” and “nuisance” because there is a rule against loud animals that are a nuisance. This allowed the Board to compare the CCRs with the support signatures apples for apples. Once you get those signatures, create a graphic that shows your house in relation to all that signed your petition. This is a great way of visually showing those who support you in your neighborhood. Finally, if you’ve got great neighbors like mine, you’ll have them come as your posse to the Board meeting. I had 5 adult neighbors (and 1 child) attend the meeting and speak in support of our chickens. Hearing this from others really showed the good impact our flock was making in the neighborhood. (Note: a carton of eggs is a great way to show your thanks)

Tip #3: What have other Associations done?
Google “HOA and Chickens” or any combination of “chickens”, “HOA”, and “CCRs”. You’ll be amazed at what you find. Backyard chicken has a few great forums with information from other chicken owners and their experiences with HOAs. I found a few promising articles and presented this information to the Board. I think it’s important to highlight that people all over the country have chickens, and there are many different ways of accommodating them in a HOA (whether that means restricting the number of chickens, or how the decision to allow chickens is made).

Tip #4: Are you willing to compromise?
On a personal note, this was the hardest part for me to come to terms with. If the Board votes no more chickens – are you ready to go to the next level (i.e. court) to keep them? Are you willing to give up a few hens to keep the neighbor(s) happy? After taking everything into consideration, I decided to pair my flock down from 6 to 3. Sure, I miss the extra eggs and the sound of a happy coop. But, because I showed the Board that I was willing to compromise, they agreed to let me keep my remaining girls. In the end – totally worth it.

Go to the meeting with confidence and your head held high – after all, you are a steward of this uncharted urban chicken-raising territory!

January 29, 2012

Garden Porn

If you can't find me, it's because I'm in a corner somewhere studying this:

Baker Creek's 2012 Seed Catalog. From the folks that own the Seed Bank in Petaluma.

Anyone else nerding out over purple tomatoes??

January 27, 2012

The Chickens Prevail!

Eli and Foghorn. Eli came to the meeting to show his support!
A huge collective sigh of relief has descended upon the Sunnyglen Drive neighborhood – we get to keep our chickens! I thought I’d share a bit about how sh*t went down at our HOA Board meeting last night.

In case you need the background:  Paul and I have had chickens in our backyard since last March. In September, our next door neighbor began complaining about the noise they were making (and separately, the noise coming from our house, our music, and our guests). Because so many complaints were filed, the HOA needed to have a hearing where we would discuss the future of the chickens (namely, if we were in violation of the CCRs of the HOA).

You know me - I had graphics, a powerpoint presentation, and handouts prepared for that meeting. I practiced my argument numerous times in front of friends. That HOA (and our neighbor) had no idea what they were up against! We made it to the meeting with a convoy of supporters. I was nervous. I began by introducing ourselves and the context of the situation. I then started my argument, focusing on the one CCR having to do with animals. It states:

“An occupant may keep domestic dogs, cats, fish and birds provided he/she doesn’t keep them for commercial purposes…keeps no more than the maximum number allowed by Governmental Regulations…and the Association can prohibit the keeping of any animal that it determines to be a nuisance to any person of reasonable and normal sensitivity.” (emphasis mine)

To me, the argument was clear – we were within our rights as homeowners. Chickens are domestic birds. The City of Vallejo has no limit to the number of chickens a person can raise. And our neighbor (the complainant) is not reasonable, nor is she of normal sensitivity. 

I broke the CCR down sentence by sentence, and when I got to the part about her being unreasonable, that’s when things got heated. Note: this neighbor is a BOARD MEMBER of our HOA. She was not allowed to vote in this case, though she was allowed to defend herself as a member of the development. I proceeded to tell the Board how bat shit crazy she is. How she has complained about the noises from our house since (literally) the day we moved in. About the passive aggressive notes she leaves in our mailbox. How we’re more than happy to turn the music down if she would just call us or come over. How I got rid of 3 chickens just to compromise, and she still is complaining. How all of our neighbors have signed a document stating the chickens are not loud or a nuisance to our neighborhood. All of which makes her the unreasonable and sensitive one.  The 6 neighbors that came to the meeting with us spoke about their love for the chickens, and about our neighbor’s “character.” That they too have been harassed by her for different reasons.

She did not like this one bit.

When it was her turn to defend herself, she started reaching for all the ammo she could. She presented to the Board a log of every noise that has bothered her coming from our house (from music, to chickens, to parties). Most was between the hours of 7am-10pm (which is completely allowed). She said the noise resonated throughout her whole house. That her son wakes up screaming because the chickens are noisy. How numerous people “come and go” from our house, and how our garage has become the neighborhood hangout (jealous much?) How she’s had to rescue Coco before when she escaped out of our yard. How our cats somehow end up on her porch. There were so many lies I couldn’t keep track of them all. It took everything I had not to laugh or smirk (which I did a few times, whoops!) 

In the end, the Board decided that the chickens were indeed allowed. They diplomatically and politely told our neighbor that because she’s the only one sensitive to the noise and that it’s something that doesn’t affect the whole neighborhood – the complaints should be forwarded to the police.

She did not like this either. 

The Board encouraged us to come to some sort of compromise - and we're ready and willing for that. Now we’re just waiting for her phone call (though I’m not expecting that anytime soon). In the meantime, I gave Foghorn, Leghorn, and Rafiki a big hug and some treats this morning. I’m so happy I get to keep my babies!

January 23, 2012

January Update

Wow, it's been a month since I've posted, which means I must be really busy! The month of December consisted of Paul's 30th birthday blowout party, Christmas Eve (hosted at our house), and a New Years Eve celebration in Oakland. Between all of the chaos I was able to relax and gear up for my new job. And speaking of that....

I'm now into week 4 at the California Faculty Association, which represents faculty at all 23 CSU campuses. I'm the Statewide Events and Meetings Coordinator, and this past weekend was my first event! It went really well considering I'm new, and there were over 200 people for me to meet. I'm definitely feeling slightly overwhelmed (in a good way), but that's okay. My commute from Vallejo to Sacramento has been great as well - I've been driving to Fairfield and then taking the Amtrak to downtown Sac. It's been so nice to drink my coffee and stare out the window in the mornings, and decompress in the evenings. The only hard part about this transition is leaving my baby girl Coco alone all day. She's starting to get used to it, and luckily I have amazing neighbors that check on her every day.

Other than that, our lives are pretty full! Paul has been working in Gilroy trying to finish up a job at the new library. I have 3 meetings (1 in Sacramento, 2 in LA) between now and April, so I'm busy busy! We're hoping to take a much needed a vacation to Mexico in May or June - we'll see if we can squeeze that in as well.

Thanks everyone for the well wishes about my new job. I really appreciate them!