Long Beach garden enthusiast Henry Kurland did have high hopes for the birds and the bees. At his Wrigley home on July 16, just hours just before the City Council was set to vote on a controversial ordinance that would advance urban agriculture, Kurland opened up the gate that led to his backyard chicken coop and threw handfuls of organic feed to his Buff Orpington hens.
The hens in his coop greedily clucked and pecked away at the unexpected treats. Clearly rebuffing any of Kurland’s attempts to hold it in his lap, the hen flapped wildly until Kurland finally released her. Just a few feet away, a couple of hives housing thousands of feral bees hummed softly in the July heat.
Kurland knows that his hives (two regular hives and one small “nuclear” hive) near the backyard fence are too close to the property line, out of compliance with the current city regulations. The rules right now require that hives be kept at least 100 feet away from residences.
“I outed myself to the City,” Kurland said in an interview Tuesday, “so I have no secrets.”
He serves as the president of the Long Beach Beekeepers, an association that serves to educate the public about the hobby of beekeeping. The group also touts its ability to perform rescues, where the public can request the group to remove bees safely and find homes for unwanted hives.
While Kurland focused on the plight of bees, on the other side of town, Donna Marykwas, a resident of Rose Park, pondered goats and chickens. Marykwas has fond memories of her chickens and especially those of her Nigerian Dwarf goats that she had to give up. The Rose Park resident said she was cited in 2009 for keeping hens and goats in her home. In a telephone interview Monday, she recalled how she would start her day by feeding organic food to her hens and caring for them in her yard.
“It’s just a lovely experience watching the birds just go about being healthy, happy [chickens],” said Marykwas, “instead of having to go to the grocery store and buy eggs from chickens that have probably lived a miserable life.”
Marykwas serves as the founder for an advocacy group called Long Beach Grows. Her organization promotes urban agriculture. She and Kurland have both been active in advocating for a change in the rules as they relate to chickens, goats and bees, but they and numerous other advocates walked away in disappointment from the July 16 City Council meeting. The votes were very close, but a proposal to ease the city regulations governing the ownership of chickens, goats and bees ultimately could not get enough support from the majority of the Council on Tuesday. Current city regulations now remain unchanged, despite 2nd District Councilmember Suja Lowenthal’s passionate advocacy on behalf of a modification in the city rules. She requested that the Council adopt an ordinance that focused on changes for the three animals as a group. She didn’t support a substitute motion that would have solely focused on changing the rules only for chickens.
The ordinance to ease some of the rules needed five votes to pass. Both the motion in support of the ordinance and two other substitute motions received only four favorable votes and three opposing votes.
At the July 16 meeting, more than 20 proponents of the ordinance spoke before the Council or held up kelly-green signs that simply read “urban agriculture.” These advocates outnumbered opponents to the ordinance. Less than 10 residents spoke out against making changes to the city rules.
Ted Stevens, who serves as the bureau manager for the City’s Animal Care Services department, explained Tuesday that the current rules already allow people to own chickens, goats and bees. The proposal that came from the City’s Environmental Committee (which Lowenthal chairs) would have made significant changes to setback requirements that spelled out how far away these farm animals could be kept relative to neighboring residences.
Here are some of the highlights from Stevens’s explanation of the current rules.
• Up to 20 chickens may be kept a minimum of 50 feet away from one- and two-family homes or 100 feet away from multi-family residences and hotels without any required permit or City inspection.
• One chicken may be kept a minimum of 20 feet from any dwelling without any permit or inspection.
• No more than one goat may be kept at least 100 feet away from neighboring residences. They did not require a permit.
• No goats may be kept south of Anaheim Street.
• Beehives are required to be kept at least 100 feet away from neighboring homes, streets and alleys. The hives must be kept 10 feet above the ground.
The City already prohibits backyard animal slaughter, and no roosters are allowed anywhere in Long Beach, Stevens later confirmed.
Stevens outlined proposed changes as recommended by the Environmental Committee that were ultimately not passed by the Council. Here are a few of the changes:
• Up to four chickens could be kept at least 10 feet away from other homes, and no permit would be needed. Keeping five or more chickens would have had larger setback requirements and would have required City inspection and a permit.
• Two goats could be kept at least 10 feet away from neighboring homes. Owners would have been required to obtain a permit.
• Up to four hives could be kept at least 10 feet away from the property line. Beekeepers would have been required to erect a six-foot barrier that would force bees to fly vertically over the barrier.
Fourth-district resident Judy Crumpton was among a number of residents who opposed these proposed changes to the city’s current rules.
“I moved to a city to live in a city,” Crumpton told the Council. “I don’t like living around agriculture. I did that once, and I found it to be very upsetting. So we are a city, and we need to remember that.”
Crumpton wasn’t alone. Others who said that they loved animals and were concerned about the humane treatment of animals also voiced their opposition to the proposed changes.
Deborah Turner, a humane educator who visits schools within the Long Beach Unified School District, picked apart the ordinance. She specifically criticized the proposal to change the setbacks to 10 feet for the animals in question.
“We just can’t see loosening up the code so that just anyone who has 10 feet of space in Long Beach can begin to create a farm…of animals,” Turner said in a Monday-night telephone interview.
Turner says that she teaches children and adults about responsible pet ownership. She expressed concerns about whether the City’s staff in Animal Care Services could handle the additional workload if the ordinance had passed.
“We cannot even handle the crisis that we have right now in Long Beach in regard to pet overpopulation,” Turner said, adding that the City would now take on chickens, goats and beehives. “We’re not set up to do that here in Long Beach…we can’t even enforce the rules that we have right now.”
Councilmember Patrick O’Donnell did not favor an ordinance that would relax the rules on all three animals. The 4th-district councilmember said he was “sticking with the chickens” and proposed a substitute motion that would concentrate only on changing the rules for chickens. O’Donnell said he wasn’t comfortable moving forward on goats and bees at this time.
Seventh District Councilmember James Johnson toyed with the idea of focusing only on the chickens. Before O’Donnell presented a substitute motion that did just that, Johnson emphasized how the discussion was not about “relaxing the rules, but getting the right rules.”
“And I think, frankly,” Johnson added, “if you have 19 chickens at home, you should get a permit, and you should pay the proper fees, which is not currently the case under the ordinance.” He reminded the Council and the audience that chickens are already allowed as well as goats and bees.
One councilmember agonized openly over the number of urban agricultural supporters in the Council Chamber Tuesday night and the number of supporters who wrote numerous letters against change.
“As one who grows their own food in their own garden, I understand sustainability,” said 9th District Councilmember Steven Neal. “I can see by the testimony that was provided here tonight that this community represents the best and the brightest as far as adhering…and wanting to move forward, but at the same time, the overwhelming correspondence that I received in my office– not from folks that are here tonight but from my district members– are in complete opposition to this.”
Eighth District Councilmember Al Austin acknowledged the strong feelings on both sides of the issue. He, however, added that more public education is needed. Austin said he favored a motion that only changed the rules on chickens.
“I understand the value of chickens and producing eggs,” Austin said. “I don’t see that they are going to create the nuisance and the fear from many of the residents.”
Lowenthal disagreed. The 2nd-district councilmember continued to ask that the Council pass the ordinance which addressed chickens, goats and bees together instead of supporting O’Donnell’s proposition to change only the municipal rules on chickens. She supported Vice Mayor Robert Garcia’s recommendation to pass another substitute motion that would allow a six-month review of the ordinance. Lowenthal highlighted the benefits of the urban-agricultural movement.
“What we’ve learned,” Lowenthal said, prior to the Council’s vote, “is that people are interested in food security and really being able to ensure that they can grow their own food, even though we’re not talking about actual landscape-type architecture.” She further explained that residents are attempting to build a community experience through their gardens.
“It’s harkening back a little bit to this inner desire that we have to be a group, to be part of a tribe of sorts,” Lowenthal concluded.
Garcia agreed with Lowenthal. He linked the issue of urban agriculture with the need to create a sustainable community and increase access to fresh food.
“I think there’s also room for us to look at how urban [agriculture] can evolve in our city,” Garcia said just before the Council voted. He explained that this movement could create a space for people to learn from one another. He said that Long Beach could be a “leader in animal care.”
Four councilmembers– Garcia, Lowenthal, Johnson, and 6th District Councilmember Dee Andrews– all voted in favor of a motion that changes the ordinance for chickens, goats and bees as recommended by the Environmental Committee. They also voted in favor of a substitute motion offered by Garcia that would require the City Council to return to the issue after a six-month review. O’Donnell, Austin and Neal all voted against these two motions. The substitute motion offered by O’Donnell that amended the city regulations for chickens received only four votes from O’Donnell, Johnson, Austin and Neal. That substitute motion was opposed by Garcia, Lowenthal and Andrews.
In the end, advocates of urban agriculture lost this battle. The Council quickly moved on to the next agenda item in what was already a long Council meeting.
Dozens of people filed out of the Council Chamber. A few groups lingered in the lobby to mull over the events of the evening.
Among them, Deborah Turner, one of the staunch advocates against the ordinance, said that she was happy with the outcome. Turner then lowered her voice slightly when she acknowledged she had something in common with the people on the other side of the issue. In her earlier interview, she stressed her love for animals. The advocates in support of urban agriculture also stressed their love of animals during the Council meeting.
Others, signs in hand, filed away and made their way home. Kurland and others like him would arrive that evening to a home with a back yard full of hens or bees or both. The computer teacher and bee expert says that he’s been stung hundreds of times by the tiny yellow insects that fascinate him. He says the stings hurt but don’t really bother him.
The following day, he would see the blond hens that belong to his wife Selene emerge from the coop that’s conveniently located under the shade of a thick grapevine. The hens require work, Kurland and his wife readily acknowledge, and it is cheaper to buy eggs from a grocery store. They can laugh a little now about how the hens loved and destroyed the expensive Italian kale that used to grow in the back yard.
The next morning and every day after that, the hens would demand another round of organic grain, another walk in the sunshine.