I live in a residential zone. My neighbor has a chicken coop that is bursting at its seams. The noise is constant and the smell is unbearable. Can a person even keep chickens in residential zones? If so, are there limits on how many? I am hesitant to file a complaint because I am afraid my neighbor will take it personally and start a fight with me. What can I do?
You are in a tough position. On the one hand, you want to enjoy your property without interference. On the other, you do not want to create a hostile situation with your neighbor. Most jurisdictions, though, rely on citizen complaints to identify violations of land-use, building, and noise ordinances. As a result, in cases like this, your best bet might be to file a complaint with your local code enforcement department.
Whether chickens are permitted and if so, how many, varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction across the United States. If chickens are permitted, some jurisdictions might permit four or five per residential parcel. In other jurisdictions, the number of chickens allowed on a lot might depend on lot size and the location of the chicken coop in relation to the property lines. Roosters are sometimes separately prohibited.
To find out what limitations, if any, apply to your neighbor, you will need to review your local jurisdiction's zoning ordinance (sometimes called a development code). This document contains land use regulations that control how property owners can use their property.
Land use regulations can be confusing, so if you need assistance, a planner at your local planning department or community development department should be able to help you identify the applicable provisions.
In addition to land use regulations that directly address where and how any chickens are allowed, look into the applicable nuisance ordinance. Sometimes the zoning ordinance will include provisions addressing nuisances, but nuisance regulations are often found in a separate code or ordinance.
Some nuisance ordinances address noise or odors, others specifically prohibit keeping animals if doing so creates conditions that cause an offensive odor. The ordinance might even require the owner to remove animal waste every week or require the owner to otherwise address the smell.
Many jurisdictions make it easy to file complaints, either online or in person, over the phone, or by mail. The instructions for properly filing a complaint vary from place to place, so contact your local code enforcement department. The department might have a form for you to complete or might just take your information in person or over the phone. When filing a complaint, you will need to provide the following basic information:
Whether you can file an anonymous complaint will depend on the rules in your city or county. Some municipalities accept them. If your intent is to keep your name secret, be sure to make that clear to the code enforcement department.
Take note, though: If you are the only witness, unless there is a blatant violation, it could be difficult for the investigator to put a case together without your witness statement. By trying to keep your involvement in the complaint process private, you could weaken your case against your neighbor.
After you file a complaint, the code enforcement department will investigate. The investigator will likely interview your neighbor and ask to inspect the backyard. The investigator might also interview you, and possibly other neighbors, to determine whether a code violation has occurred.
If the investigator cannot identify a violation, the code enforcement department can dismiss the complaint. If it determines there is a violation, your neighbor will be alerted and given a specified amount of time in which to correct the violation (for example, 30 days.) If your neighbor does not correct the violation by the required time, he may have to go to court or risk a fine.
In many cases, just having a casual conversation with a neighbor can help. Many people are unaware of the impact they have on their neighbors. Whether it is barking dogs, loud music, or stinky chickens, talking to your neighbor in a casual, non-threatening manner might spur your neighbor to fix the problem.
Placing sawdust or straw on the chicken poop might solve the odor problem. And perhaps if your neighbor were aware that the city or county allowed property owners to have only a certain number of chickens, he would comply with that limitation.
Mediation is another option that can be pursued before or after you file a code enforcement complaint. Mediation provides a neutral forum for parties to resolve disputes. Nonfinancial disputes, such as disputes between neighbors, can be particularly well suited for resolution through mediation. Since any agreement reached will be the result of the parties' mutual efforts, both can leave mediation with their heads held high. This can be important, since it might be difficult to maintain a cordial relationship with the person living next door if one (or even both) feels like they "lost" in court.
Suing your neighbor and taking him to court is another alternative. It rarely is the best choice, since it costs the most money, takes the most time and effort, and can be extremely stressful.
However, if code enforcement fails to find a violation and mediation does not work (or is not an option), you might have to sue your neighbor. In a case like this, you might have a claim for private nuisance. Before filing a lawsuit, be sure to get advice from your own attorney to determine whether you have a claim.
Regardless of whether you have to file a lawsuit or not, talking an attorney is a good idea if you are concerned about getting into a dispute with your neighbor. An attorney can tell you exactly what land use regulations apply and, if necessary, provide guidance on whether or not you have a basis upon which to sue your neighbor.