My neighbors and partners in all-things-chicken and I got our first five birds back in 2004, shortly after I discovered, quite by accident, that poultry keeping was perfectly legal in Decatur. The laying hens were a gateway drug for me. Before long I was fantasizing about having a couple of small dairy goats.
The thing that has kept me from pursuing my caprine dreams, however, is this little phrase in Section 14-7.1 of our city ordinances: “Livestock shall be permitted on properties of at least two acres in size.”
Oh, well. I let it go — until a few months ago, when a kerfuffle about an Oakhurst resident with lots of fowl and, yes, goats, got my attention. According to her blog, the City sent out some code enforcement people to inspect her property and situation. And while she was told to do some clean-up and repair and to move her chicken coop, they determined that her three goats are “companion animals” and allowed her to keep them on her less-than-two-acre lot.
Right away I ordered a book on backyard goats, started researching breeds and breeders in the area, tested the idea with some neighbors. And the more I learned, the more questions I realized I had about what exactly the City allows. For starters, it’s not entirely clear to me what type of goats are living in that backyard in Oakhurst. They have been alternately described as “African pygmies” and “Nigerian dwarves”— which are two different breeds (maybe she has some of both?). African pygmy goats are typically just pets, while Nigerian dwarves are actually dairy goats. I’ve also seen them identified as “African dwarves,” which is especially confusing, because there is no such breed.
All of this matters because it goes to the heart of the distinction between “companion animals” and “livestock.” Can you have a dairy goat (or a fiber producer, or, for that matter, a meat breed, which is what African pygmies originally were) that is also a pet—a “companion animal?” Is it “livestock” if you drink the milk or make cheese or shear it for the angora fleece? If I love my Nigerian dwarf dairy goat as much as I love my dog, is it a “companion animal?”
The bad news is, Decatur city ordinances don’t offer much help on these questions. (The only other statement referencing goats is, “Any horses, mules, cattle, hogs, sheep, goats or other animals running at large in the city shall be taken up and impounded by the police department of the city,” which I love just for the image it evokes—all those beasts running wild in the mad, mad streets of Decatur.)
But the good news is, we have an opportunity to get some clarity on the books. As the Zoning Ordinance Task Force moves ahead with its work, this is our chance to ensure that our zoning ordinances support the values of the community. Local, sustainable food production and consumption have certainly been embraced in Decatur. In so many ways, the City has officially endorsed urban agriculture practices within its limits—most prominently in the strategic plan, which includes sustainability as a goal and asserts support for urban food production as a task. The Decatur Environmental Sustainability Board has done much to foster this ethos. Now we might actually codify it. But it will take some creativity and careful thought to develop language that truly works.
There are growing resources available for this effort. The Atlanta Local Food Initiative and Georgia Organics have been researching model ordinances, and even their early efforts have begun turning up some useful language. The most promising model hails from Belmont, California, which developed detailed ordinances in 2005 for a growing interest there in keeping pygmy goats in its city limits. And, as it happens, our neighbor community to the northwest, Acworth, Georgia, issues permits for residents to keep pygmy goats as well.
As the task force begins its deliberations, I hope we all will consider issues like this one—aspects of life here in Decatur that we appreciate but that may not have the structural support needed to sustain them in ways we’d like. Scott has already called our attention to another one here—shared parking as a way of accommodating our beloved establishments without encouraging the bad habits of sprawl.
In the meantime, I am getting to work preparing my own little goat zone—securing fencing, cleaning out a shed that will become a stall, building a milking stand, thinking up clever goat names . . .