Wednesday, November 11, 2009

You are staring into the face of illegality

Sage, Juniper and Rosemary, the chickens photographed to the left are secret chickens. Bootleg chickens. Illegal chickens. Their hometown, a distant suburb of a major city, does not allow its residents to raise chickens so their owners, self-proclaimed suburban homesteaders, raise them covertly under the title of pets. The fresh eggs that they get each morning with golden orange yolks that they whip into omelets, place atop croque madame’s or turn into the occasional batch of cookies are merely a benefit of having pet chickens, not the goal…definitely, not the goal.

That these chickens are illegal is symptomatic of zoning laws that reflect the standards and needs of bygone eras and not the needs of their current communities. As an increasing number of people develop an interest in sustainable food including growing their own produce, and yes raising their own animals the rules need to change.

However, as any number of individuals who have attempted to get the ordinances in their local municipality changed, changing the rules can be exceedingly difficult. The powers that be have created inflexible systems that are difficult to change and often fail to anticipate changing mores. This is not an issue that begins and ends with my friend’s illegal chickens, either.

Many zoning ordinances currently on the books prioritize wider roads, cul-de-sacs, car transport and a host of unsustainable practices. And yet, when individuals or organizations move forward to incorporate more sustainable behaviors into their lifestyles, they discover that those same rules often stand in their way. The most common barrier is rules that were originally developed to protect residential areas from the negative effects of industrial factories and prohibit mixed use developments of all sorts. How this often plays out, however, is that the average person cannot live next to an automobile factory (good) but they also cannot live next to a supermarket (bad). This kind of blanket zoning is why many suburbs are driving distance and not walking distance from the closest supermarket, restaurant or bakery; the ordinances explicitly prohibit mixing businesses (even safe ones) with residences.

The inanity of these rules abound: households that have become car free discover that it is illegal for them to convert their now useless driveways into lawns or gardens; an individual who has managed to get his trash down to absolutely zero is fined for not having trash, and so on. As those of working to develop more sustainable communities push against these ordinances to get them changed to encourage more sustainable developments, we should also leave behind ways of making it easier to change the ordinances in the future. Much as many of the current rules are outdated and no longer contribute to how we as a society would like to live, we must also recognize that the rules we are currently implementing may one day be rendered inoperable. We have to incorporate flexibility into our planning process.

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