Lorien Tersey is a rare Tucsonan who tends chickens legally. She and her husband live on an acre plot tucked near North Country Club Road and East Glenn Street, so she can easily comply with the current zoning regulations that mandate all chicken coops be set back 50 feet from property lines.
Most people who tend chickens in Tucson don’t have this luxury of space. If your chicken coop is within 20 or 30 feet of your property line, it doesn’t matter how many chickens you have — they’re all illegal under Tucson’s current zoning code.
The city is trying to fix that. A proposed update to the urban agriculture zoning code would codify much of what is already happening in backyards and community gardens across the city.
“The zoning code related to agriculture is of a different era,” says Jim Mazzocco, the planning administrator for Tucson’s Planning and Development Services Department. An era when commercial agriculture reigned, when there would be no reason for residents to produce their own food.
“No one was thinking that there would be this integration of urban areas with agriculture as some part of them,” says Mazzocco.
Today, if you don’t have a large enough backyard, chickens are out — forget pygmy goats. You can legally sell your old clothes at a garage sale, but not the carrots you pull out of the ground in your garden. Farmers markets are legally considered swap meets and are thus restricted to nonresidential zones; community gardens aren’t recognized by the current zoning code.
But because enforcement is complaint-based — a neighbor has to log a complaint with the city before your chickens will get taken away—many people are engaged in urban food production activities that are not in compliance with the current code.
When voters approved Plan Tucson in November of 2013, the city adopted a general city policy supportive of urban agriculture; the zoning code update is the next step in putting that policy into practice.
Since then, the city has engaged gardeners, policymakers and urban planners to draft a new zoning code that would make practices that are currently illegal the accepted, legal standard, while also protecting those who’d prefer to keep their neighborhoods quiet.
Enforcement will remain complaint-based. “We’re not going to be driving around the streets looking for chickens,” says Mazzocco.
Gardeners and backyard homesteaders know what is safe and what is not. They know how to keep chickens healthy and lettuce clean. What the city is trying to do is incorporate this informal knowledge into a formal document. This is a messy, difficult endeavor, full of compromises and negotiations, which is partly why it’s taken a year to negotiate.
We are right to be skeptical, right to question government officials, to want to protect our rights both for quiet and chickens, for nuisance-free neighborhoods and food-filled streets.
But the city has, in this instance, proved itself a willing partner. If we want to build a sustainable, resilient Tucson, producing food within our city limits is an integral part of that strategy.
Tucson should have more community gardens, more farmers markets, more chicken coops — more food grown and consumed within our communities. An updated zoning code with an eye to developing neighborhood capacity is better than an outdated code that assumes all food comes from somewhere else. Relocalizing our foodshed also means rezoning its boundaries.
The city will present a revised proposal in August based on public comments submitted to the city. Write to the city with specific feedback to the proposed code or comments on how they can facilitate urban agriculture.