St. Lucie Commission torn between 4H member benefits and problems in one Fort Pierce-area neighborhood

FORT PIERCE – After a brief discussion in which the St. Lucie County Commission reached a stalemate on the benefits of permitting backyard chickens versus the problems experienced in one neighborhood near here, its members voted 4-0 Sept. 15 to postpone the final hearing on the proposed ordinance until Oct. 6.

During the first hearing held Sept. 1, both Chairwoman Cathy Townsend and Commissioner Sean Mitchell – the latter who was absent during the latest discussion – opposed the $25 registration fee proposed by the Building & Code Regulation Department. The members of the Planning & Zoning Commission had recommended approval Aug. 20 while also questioning the need for the registration fee. During the latest meeting, Chairwoman Townsend, who has pushed for the ordinance in particular for 4H and home-schooled students, continued to oppose the registration fee.

“I’m not in favor of the $25 – I just think that’s a little crazy,” she said.

Commissioner Frannie Hutchinson then put on her negotiating hat in an attempt to find a compromise.

“Would you be in favor of at least having them register?” she asked the chairwoman. “At least if they’re registered, there’s an opportunity to give the code requirements out to them so they know first-hand the setbacks needed and the [coop] height, so there’s nobody surprised by that. I just look at it as an opportunity to educate all the way down the line if they register.”

Commissioner Townsend concurred.

“I agree with that, and if they register, they know what the criteria is,” she responded. “I totally agree with that, but no $25 fee.”

Commissioner Hutchison had more trouble winning consensus, however, with the other half of the Board. Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky worried about ongoing problems in District 1, and Commissioner Linda Bartz recalled the reasons she opposed a similar ordinance while serving as a Port St. Lucie Councilwoman.

“Having been with the City of Port St. Lucie when it voted against chickens and knowing that we have homes in the county that abut city homes, I think that’s a problem,” the latter said. “I can have chickens, but my backyard neighbor cannot. So that’s an issue for me.”

For his part, Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky reminded his fellow board members that they’d all received a lengthy email from a resident of his district, Michael Aliotta, that included photographs of feral chickens ruling the roost in Sunland Gardens.

“It was not too long ago we had chickens running all over District 1,” he said. “It was a nightmare, [and] we couldn’t catch them. I know that there’s a conversation here about putting them in pens, but in the documentation that was provided to us with recent pictures, the chickens are just running free in the neighborhood. I just have a concern of moving this into a realm in which we are not going to be able to control it.”

Chairwoman Townsend then went on the offensive, reminding Commissioner Dzadovsky that District 1 already allows backyard chickens within the city limits of Fort Pierce – that municipality passed its ordinance in 2017 – and the county still has an ongoing pilot program implemented to give backyard hens a test drive.

“It’s been in effect for over a year now, and there have been no concerns,” she said. “There are people there [Sunland Gardens] as well as down where you’re referencing Commissioner Bartz. I think it’s proven itself, and nothing’s going to change [with the ordinance] except we’re going to continue doing what we have currently been doing for the last year and a half.”

The chairwoman also believes the current Port St. Lucie City Council is taking a wait-and-see attitude on the county’s decision before they tackle the issue again.

“I know I have been in conversation with some of the city officials,” she said. “They’re waiting to see what we do to decide where they go because I know there are several council members open to this as well.”

Mr. Aliotta, who lives on Avenue G, was the only member of the public to speak. He blamed his neighborhood’s plague of feral chickens and roosters on one family who let the fowl fly the coop after the neighborhood complained.

“Now we have hundreds of chickens in the four-block area,” he said. “The city [of Fort Pierce] instituted the change in their code a couple of years ago, and immediately people behind me [and] other people further down the block started raising chickens in pens with roosters. Even though we’re not in Fort Pierce, they did not comply to Fort Pierce law and they never complied to the county law that we couldn’t have chickens. If you were to approve this – people in Sunland Gardens will now have a ready excuse to continue the problem.”

Mr. Aliotta then urged the Commission to exclude his neighborhood as staff has proposed to do with River Park, which directly abuts the City of Port St. Lucie.

“If you’re going to approve this, exclude Sunland Gardens, just like you’re excluding River Park,” he continued. “Make it so that people cannot legally have chickens in their backyard in Sunland Gardens. There’s no way you’re going to be able to tell the difference between one chicken and another, and the people [there] have already shown themselves to be irresponsible when it comes to breeding their chickens.”

After Mr. Aliotta concluded his comments, Commissioner Dzadovsky reiterated the reasons for his opposition.

“Again, this has been a significant problem in this area, and in good conscious I couldn’t support it just because of the challenges that we have,” he said. “It’s well documented – for years we’ve been trying to get to these chickens, and it really is a problem. We have one individual today, but I can assure you that the complaint calls I’ve gotten in years past – and still today – are about chickens running free.”

County Attorney Dan McIntyre worried the county might not have a legal leg to stand on in exempting Mr. Aliotta’s neighborhood because the City of Fort Pierce next door allows backyard chickens, which is the opposition scenario of River Park and Port St. Lucie. He then suggested the Commission table the discussion in order to have a full complement of its membership and provide him more time to study the matter.

“The Board might want to think about it because [tonight] you only have four members of the Board,” he said. “We’ve waited a long time. The pilot program would stay in place and give us a chance to go back and see if we can think about it, talk with the City of Fort Pierce perhaps and come up with a strategy. We can also take the $25 fee out when we re-present it to you.”

Commissioner Dzadovsky concurred.

“This is really a trend that’s happening around the country and I would like to support it, but my fears for the neighborhoods in which I represent are greater than my risk to support it today,” he said. “If we can push it off and get through some of the items that were recommended by Legal, that’d be better.”

The Board then voted 4-0 to table the public hearing until Oct. 6.

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