On February 22, the Winter Haven City Commission voted unanimously to pass ordinance 0-21-06. The ordinance allowed chickens as an accessory use in all non-agricultural zoning districts within city limits, whereas they were previously only allowed in Agricultural (AG) zoning districts. The ordinance also provided “specific standards related to chicken quantities, permitted locations on the property, and coops.”
What started as a simple run-of-the-mill reporting on a city commission meeting has become a dangerous game of corruption, bribes, and fried chicken. The findings of this investigative report may ruffle a few feathers, but at Haven, we believe in speaking truth to power.
“The chickens are already here, and they’re problematic,” said City Manager Mike Himm. “The code compliance team is trying to be responsive to do the best that they can to be able to try to keep the issue at bay and at the same time allow folks to have chickens on their property.”
The ordinance, first heard on February 8, proposed one chicken per every 500 square feet of parcel lot area with a maximum of 15 chickens per lot. Some commissioners felt the maximum number of chickens per lot was too many, resulting in a spicy discussion and a change in the rules to one chicken per 1,000 square feet with a maximum of 5 chickens and no roosters.
Regulations developed for the ordinance also focused on the coop, which must be present on the property. Coops cannot be more than 125 square feet by 6 feet in height. This specific detail is in response to the numerous ‘chicken mansions’ popping up around town. A popular trend amongst millennials, these luxury coops are two, sometimes three stories. “If no one else will say it, I will. Chickens do not need marble countertops or wine cellars,” said commissioner JP Poultry who joined the meeting remotely.
Commissioner Brian Yolks raised questions about compliance. He asked how many violations of the order someone would have to make before having their chicken privileges revoked. Additionally, what would happen to the offending chickens?
Issues with dogs and cats are called into animal control, an extension of the sheriff’s office through the county. Mayor Brad Drumstick asked, “If someone has a problem dog or problem cat or problem chicken and we cite them, and we continually have a problem with them. Can you ultimately go in there and take the dog or cat or chicken? Or do you just keep giving them financial burdens until they get rid of their own chickens?”
As I sat in the back of the room scribbling notes from the meeting, questions about chickens flooded my mind too. What if I want to walk my chicken on a leash? What if the chicken pecks someone in the shin while we’re out? What if my chicken lays an egg on the roof of my house and it rolls off and splatters on someone’s head as they walk down the sidewalk and they’re wearing their favorite shirt and some egg residue slides down their head onto the shirt and I say, ‘I’ll buy you a new shirt,’ and they say, ‘You can’t buy me a new shirt because they don’t make this shirt anymore plus this shirt has sentimental value because my aunt bought it for me at a Joe’s Crab Shack when I was 12 right before she died in a tragic crab leg accident,’? … I made a note to sit and have a good think over these issues later.
The meeting continued. As to whether they were equipped to enforce the code provision effectively, someone pointed out that “There was some anecdotal information about this at our workshop meeting last Wednesday. Chief Bird said when he first came on board, he went on the 7th street chicken patrol, and they tried to get roosters in the trees and had a very difficult time getting them out.”
‘Hmmm, 7th Street Chicken Patrol… roosters in trees… Chief Bird… sounds serious,’ I thought.
“My problem is if you have a small lot and you can put ten chickens in the backyard… It seems to me it’s too many. I don’t have a problem with a chicken or two in the backyard,” said the mayor.
Mayor Drumstick sympathized with what the code department is up against, calling it a ‘conundrum’ … a chicken conundrum. But he also brought up the issue of care. If someone isn’t properly caring for their chickens and cleaning the coop regularly, would it cause an odor? “If all of us had 15 chickens, it would be a nightmare in my neighborhood,” he said.
To the issue of a ‘fowl’ odor, Code Supervisor Tanya Air-Fryer said, “In the last 11 years, we’ve only had 81 complaints about fowl. Out of all of those complaints, the majority of the complaints were either that they were at large or that they had roosters. We’ve only had one complaint about odor.”
Later in the meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Songbird added his thoughts on the odor issue. Songbird said, “We used to raise chickens. I don’t know if the technology of the coop has vastly improved since we raised chickens because there was an odor. … But we had 30 chickens.”
I made the note on my legal pad and underlined it. ‘Songbird – former chicken hoarder?’ Details and statements swirled in my mind. This commission meeting was becoming very interesting. Something stunk – and it wasn’t the chickens.
Back to the issue of what to do with rooster rule-breakers or folks with too many chickens per lot. Commissioner Tracy McNugget suggested that the Winter Haven City Police Department (as they were already familiar with the poultry problem via the 7th Street Chicken Patrol and Chief Bird’s sordid history with roosters in trees and suspicious last name) start a new department to maintain law and order – SCU. SCU or the Special Chickens Unit, said McNugget, would be tasked with ‘chicken raids’ to detain contraband chickens. She already had a few people in mind to head up SCU, veteran no-nonsense New York detectives Olivia ‘Barnevelder’ Benson and Elliot ‘Silkie’ Stabler. The commissioner went on to say, “In the criminal justice system, the chickens are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: The police, who investigate crime, and the chicken attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.”
The commission agreed with the idea, calling it “The best and most logical course of action.”
The timing and thoroughness of those suggestions were fishy to me. I was going to have to do a little more digging into these avian affairs.
Another issue raised was how will we know whose chicken is whose? Is that nuisance chicken mine or my neighbors? How will SCU know? Registration? Tag? Lower back tattoo? That item did not end up in the final ordinance.
After all sides were heard, and no one from the public stepped forward to comment, the ordinance was passed unanimously on February 22.
Hold onto your hens because this is where the story takes a turn. I had a hunch, see? And I was going to follow it. Roll the tape! But since there is no tape, I’ll explain to you what I saw in narrative detail.
The commission heard several more items on their agenda and wrapped up the meeting late into the evening. I followed the mayor and his commissioner cronies out to the parking lot. I stayed far enough behind and peeked around a corner as not to be detected. One way or the other, I was going to get the s-coop. The group looked around wearily as if to be sure they weren’t being watched as they made their way to a shadowy corner of the lot, a dim area devoid of streetlamps.
A suave-looking businessman in a red polo handed the mayor something discreetly – a white paper bag. The bag was suspiciously greasy as if its contents were perhaps fried and delicious. As the man in the red shirt turned to get into his awaiting town car – that’s when I saw it. The logo on his shirt… it was familiar. It was… Chick-fil-A.
Red polo shirt guy turned to the mayor and said, “Thanks for agreeing to meet. I enjoyed our call yesterday. Nice doing business with you.”
Wait? But today was Monday. That meant… the mayor and Mr. Chicken Sandwich had a business call the day before. On… a Sunday? Either this guy was working out of bounds, or Chick-fil-A is open on Sunday, and they aren’t telling us – maybe because that’s when the real dirty work gets done. I became disoriented as theories and conclusions raced around my mind and collided. What had I just witnessed?
Even more troubling, who had just witnessed me? I stood stock still as every one of the commissioners turned and looked in my direction. I had been discovered. I locked eyes with the group’s alpha, Mayor Drumstick. I flicked my Virginia Slim, pulled my fedora further over my eyes, and buttoned my trench coat. It was time to scram (insert scrambled egg joke here).
When I got home, I replayed the night’s events. I thought back to the February 8 meeting. When no one from the public stepped forward to speak, Mayor Drumstick ‘joked,’ “So Colonel Sanders is not watching.” But… was it a joke? Or was it to throw me off the trail? To be sure that the commission’s corporate daddy, Chick-fil-A, wouldn’t be implicated?
I stepped up to my corkboard and started connecting photos with red string. The Winter Haven City Commission concocted an ordinance ‘addressing’ the ‘chicken conundrum.’ The goal was not to allow chickens as an accessory use in all non-agricultural zoning districts within city limits. It was really to create an excess of illegal chickens by setting a limit on the number one can own within city limits in non-AG zoning districts, knowing most people had more than what the ordinance permitted.
They would then use the SCU to ‘detain’ any nuisance chickens or those at large. Unfortunately for the fowl, detainment meant ending up on the wrong end of a chicken sandwich. The commissioners accepted payment in the form of chicken sandwiches for passing the ordinance.
I would also like to point out that we have a suspicious number of city officials with the word ‘Bird’ in their name. A coincidence? Perhaps…
We know for sure now that commissioners are in the pocket of Big Chicken Sandwich (also known in the industry as Big Farm-a). And we know that Big Chicken Sandwich is in their bellies. The commission’s involvement raises the question as to what other special interests they could be working with. Big Taco? Big Mac? Big Lebowski?
With chicken on the brain and a fire in my belly, I fell asleep with plans to write the exposé of my life the next day. But on Tuesday morning, around 8:35 am, I walked out to my car. The thinly veiled and lightly breaded threat read, ‘Keep your nose out of our business lady. Or you’re gonna get pecked!’ in honey mustard. I know it was honey mustard because I tasted it. Strange… the perfect condiment to put on a spicy chicken sandwich. If someone was sending a message, I tasted it loud and clear.
Anyway, now my life is in danger. And I can’t go to Chick-fil-A anymore… or city commission meetings.
If you have questions or comments regarding the “totally not a bribe” chicken ordinance, email firstname.lastname@example.org.