Two and a half years after it was proposed, making it easier to keep hens, bees, pigs and goats was adopted Monday night by the El Cerrito City Council.
Unlike earlier public meetings on the proposal, which attracted of the issue, only three members of public spoke on the topic at the council meeting. All three spoke in favor, though they urged various revisions.
After nearly two hours of discussion, the council voted unanimously to adopt the ordinance as proposed by staff, based on earlier and from the public in responses sent to the city and comments at the March council meeting and at in August last year.
"We have adopted our animals ordinance," Mayor Ann Cheng said after the vote. "Congratulations, and thank you."
The new law — originally proposed by residents to the city's Environmental Quality Committee in May 2009 — doesn't take effect until April 1, to give city staff time to draft permit language and decide on fees. The council agreed to a moratorium until April 1 on enforcing provisions of the current law that would be changed under the new law, so that there will be no penalties for people who now have animals under illegal conditions that will become lawful under the new law.
The measure places limits on the number of animals and defines the minimum distance they must be kept from neighboring property, though those restrictions could be eased to a small extent with unanimous consent of owners of adjoining properties.
Provisions of new ordinance
Property owners on lots of at least 4,000 square feet could have four hens if the coop is kept 20 feet from homes on adjacent properties. If written consent of all neighbors is obtained, smaller lots also could have four hens and coops could be closer than 20 feet to neighboring homes. Roosters would still be subject to old law, which requires special approval from the planning commission and a costly conditional use permit.
Two beehives could be kept on lots of at least 5,000 square feet and must be located at least five feet from the property line and 20 feet from homes on adjacent property. With unanimous consent of neighbors, smaller lots could have one beehive and distance requirements could be waived.
The law will allow one pig weighing less 150 pounds (pot-bellied pig) on lots of at least 5,000 square feet, and an indeterminate number of goats on lots of at least 10,000 square feet.
Under current law, residents can apply to the city to keep any number of any type of animal, but such permission has to be granted under a conditional use permit granted at the discretion of the planning commission, a process requiring a public hearing and cumulative fees typicall exceeding $1,000 with no guarantee of approval.
The new law makes keeping of chickens and bees a matter of right, subject to the limits in the ordinance, requiring a far less expensive over-the-counter permit. Those who wish to keep a pig or goats will have to apply for an administrative use permit, which is granted at the discretion of the city zoning administrator with a cost higher than an over-the-counter permit and lower than a conditional use permit.
Sean Moss, a senior planner for the city, told the council that most of the contacts and queries from the public at city hall concerned chickens, followed by bees.
Debate over animal slaughter
The only issue of serious contention was a proposed amendment by City Councilwoman Janet Abelson requiring that any slaughter of animals be "not visible outside the subject property." She had earlier expressed a wish for a ban on slaughter of animals, but City Attorney Sky Woodruff pointed out that such a ban could infringe on constitutional free speech rights since ritualistic slaughter of animals is a recognized religious practice.
Instead, as recommended in the city staff report to the council (attached to this article), the new ordinance contains regulations on health, sanitation and nuisances that would "address the potential impacts of animal slaughter without creating potential constitutional issues or inadvertently banning commonplace activties."
"What I actually was thinking about," Abelson said, "was small children being exposed from their home, say, to the slaughter of animals in their own environment."
Woodruff said crafting a ban on animal slaughter that would not violate constitutional rights would be very difficult and that a council vote on the ordinance would need to be postponed until the next council meeting to provide time to work on it.
A straw vote among council members on whether to delay for possible inclusion of a slaughter ban drew three votes against the delay from Cheng, Rebecca Benassini and Greg Lyman, and two votes in favor from Abelson and Bill Jones.
Dog poop law cleaned up
The new ordinance also revised the existing law on dogs, adopting a change that did not receive comment from the council during the meeting. The city's current animals ordinance makes it illegal for anyone in possession of a dog to allow the dog to engage in "excreting on property other than that of its owner."
The new ordinance would allow canine excretion elsewhere as long as the person with the dog cleans it up.
The dog section of the new law also retains the existing requirement that dogs be kept on a leash when outside their fenced yards.