Lookout Mountain, Ga., weighs allowing backyard chickens

Lookout Mountain (Ga) resident Jimmy Campbell, 81, holds one of his Polish roosters inside the pen behind his home in Lookout Mountain, Ga.

LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN, Ga. - He dropped slices of butter onto a pair of pans, lit the stove and reached for two eggs.

To his left, Jimmy Campbell picked one out of a Styrofoam crate. Large eggs, Grade A, $1.26 at Food City at the bottom of the mountain. To his right, Campbell reached into a colander and ran his hand across eggs that were light orange and light pink and big and small and speckled and a little misshapen. They came from the chickens out back.

He cracked both eggs open.

"There is a difference in color, isn't there?" he said, pointing to their yolks.

His chickens had produced an egg with a fine yolk, he said. Dark yellow, almost orange. This was the yolk of a fresh egg, laid in the last week. Food City's egg, meanwhile, was laid on the 303rd day of the year - at the end of October. Look at the yolk, all pale yellow.

"You could tell the difference on the first bite," said Campbell, 81.

photo Lookout Mountain (Ga) resident Jimmy Campbell prepares to cook both of these eggs Thursday at his home. The egg on the right was purchased from Food City. The other, a fresh egg from Campbell's hens.

"There's just more flavor to it," said his friend and roommate, Kathryn Green, of Wood Nymph Trail. "... And we know it's healthier. And we know there's no pesticides, no antibiotics, none of the bad stuff."

But, research on homegrown eggs is not so clear. Pat Curtis, a poultry scientist at Auburn University, told the Washington Post in 2010 that people who raise their own chickens love to talk about the color of their eggs' yolk. But the difference is only psychological.

Nevertheless, Green insists the chickens produce great eggs. And they're an important element to her eclectic home decor, which she proudly describes as "whimsical."

There is a problem, though. In 1988, the Lookout Mountain city council passed an ordinance that banned chickens from any property smaller than 5 acres. Green's property is smaller than 5 acres. So are the properties of some other chicken owners on the mountain, it turns out.

Having recently learned of this issue, the Chattanooga City Council will consider changing the ordinance, in January. But on Tuesday, before the council's regularly scheduled meeting, the elected officials held a public hearing, letting residents weigh in.

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Campbell and Green have lived in open, if unwitting, defiance of the city ordinance since Green first bought some chickens in Dade County about five years ago. They share their eggs with neighbors, the mayor, the city manager, the police.

But on Sept. 29, a woman down the block on Cinderella Road called 911 to complain about the noise that chickens in the neighborhood were making. She was throwing a party that weekend, according to the incident report, and the chickens needed to go. She insisted there was a law against this.

The officer wasn't so sure. But he reviewed the city code with the police chief, city manager and city attorney, and they all agreed: The woman was right. She said Campbell and Green's chickens weren't the problem; the noise was coming from down the road.

That culprit, Scott Gearinger, said the birds belonged to his 15-year-old daughter. She picked out about six of them at Stockdale's in Hixson last year, after her sisters went away to college. Gearinger said the pets taught her responsibility. She raised them from 2 days old, keeping them next to a warm red light, gradually drawing them farther away as they grew feathers.

When the officer arrived, he wrote in his report he could not hear the chickens until he stood right next to their coop. Still, he gave Gearinger a citation. But the officer had to be fair. So he wrote Campbell up, too. Both men are due in front of a municipal court judge in January.

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The chicken owners gathered in front of the city council at 5 p.m. Thursday. So did the concerned neighbors. Mayor David Bennett limited comments to two minutes per person - or rather, he tried.

photo Attorney Bill Pickering speaks about the chicken controversy at an open meeting Thursday night at the Lookout Mountain (Ga) City Hall. Mayor Tom Gifford is seen, back center.

"A chicken can eat spiders and scorpions and ticks and fleas," said Kenneth Hailey.

"We've got an ordinance that prevents it, and I don't think we should have chickens in the city of Lookout Mountain, Ga.," said Ian Hamilton, the former mayor.

"To allow chickens and to try and monitor that," said Tommy Gifford, another former mayor, "it's going to bring on more problems."

"The day may come when you may have to have a chicken to eat," said Laura Fyfe. "... It can happen. You might need a good neighbor."

"You can watch all the cartoons," said Jonathan Kent. "Chickens bring coyotes."

The Chattanooga City Council dealt with this issue earlier this fall. If residents wanted chickens on plots smaller than 5 acres, the elected officials said, they could appeal directly to the council for an exception to the rule.

Other cities across the country are grappling with the issue, too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blame the increase of backyard chickens for an uptick in salmonella. Chickens carry the germ in their poop, on their feathers and on their beaks, and they leave a trace of it wherever they go. In 2017, there have been 10 different multistate outbreaks, infecting 1,120 people. That includes 45 cases in Tennessee and 18 in Georgia.

But Green said the problem can be solved with common sense. You have to wash your hands every time you touch a chicken. And you cannot, under any circumstances, let the birds inside.

"My hope is that Lookout Mountain will embrace chickens like everywhere else in the country and make this a fun, fun, whimsical place," she said. "As it should be, being Fairyland."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.