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Can Austin residents raise chickens if their homeowners association doesn't allow it?

A person walking outside in a yard with three chickens
Renee Dominguez
KUT News
Chelsea Combs checks in on her chickens at her home near Lake Austin in April.

Jennifer Thornal was a poultry science minor at Stephen F. Austin University and a member of the college’s poultry judging team, which ranked chickens at competitions with other universities.

Now, raising chickens is one of her dreams.

“It's great therapy,” Thronal said. “You get outside, you get to deal with them, learn their personalities. My kids will have a blast picking up eggs that have been laid and learning to take care of them.”

But there’s just one problem. The Thornals live in a neighborhood with a homeowners association, which can set all kinds of rules for what they can and can’t do on their property.

They wanted to know: Can they raise chickens under an HOA if their HOA doesn’t allow it?

To answer this question, I needed to learn more about Austin’s rules about backyard chickens.

Austin’s municipal code

Chelsea Combs runs a business called Chicken Tenders ATX where she consults people who want to raise chickens in Austin.

“One of the rules regarding chickens is where you can place your coop in your yard,” she said. “It used to have to be 50 feet from a neighboring residence, but they have decreased that to where it only has to be 30 feet from a neighboring residence, so that more Austinites are able to have a coop in their yard.”

A chicken pokes its head out of an egg-shaped hole in a wooden coop
Renee Dominguez
KUT News
Jennifer Thornal says her dream is to raise chickens. “It's great therapy,” Thronal said. “You get outside, you get to deal with them, learn their personalities."

Coops are one of the accepted poultry enclosures defined in Austin’s municipal code. They must have four secure sides and an overhead cover. The code also states chickens can’t roam free. Whether this means chickens must remain in their coops or be contained to a backyard is unclear.

But agriculture attorney Carly Barton said these rules could change because of the Texas Right to Farm Act.

The Right to Farm Act

“The Right to Farm Act has been on the books in Texas since it was passed in 1981," Barton said. "When it was first introduced, it was a way for agricultural operations to fight nuisance lawsuits from their neighbors."

The statute protects farmers from civil lawsuits related to noise, smell, dust and other nuisances as long as their farm has operated unchanged for at least a year. In September, state lawmakers expanded the statute to restrain government regulations, too.

“It puts a limit on city governments of what kinds of regulation they can impose against their citizens and heightens the level of what they have to do to show that these specific agricultural operations are hazardous to the public health,” Barton said. “It can’t just be a blanket statement anymore.”

Governments must provide clear and convincing evidence that any farming restrictions they create are necessary. So, if a person wins a lawsuit claiming a government regulation violates the Right to Farm Act, governments could be forced to change their laws.

This could relax some of the chicken regulations in Austin’s municipal code.

But what does this have to do with the Thornals’ question?

Homeowners association agreements

Timothy Thornal wanted to know whether the Right to Farm Act allowed HOA residents to raise chickens.

“You have all these different layers,” he said. “You have the federal level, state level, city level, HOA level, and when they conflict, I guess that's when it's up to the courts to decide what level trumps the other level.”

Everyone must follow the rules of the smallest governing body in their area, which includes any contractual agreements.

When an owner buys a property under an HOA, they’re agreeing to any rules the HOA enacts. Property owners can find these rules in their deed restrictions or covenant, conditions and restrictions known as CC&Rs.

“Unfortunately, the Right to Farm Act does not give a resident power over their HOAs to allow them to have chickens,” Barton said.

Right to Farm constitutional amendment

So is this the end of the road for residents who want to raise chickens in an HOA that doesn’t allow it?

Not exactly. There are two separate Right to Farm laws in Texas: the Right to Farm Act and the Right to Farm constitutional amendment, known as Proposition 1.

“Proposition 1 states the people have the right to engage in generally accepted farm ranch, timber production, horticulture or wildlife management practices on real property they own or lease,” Timothy said, reading from the amendment which passed last year.

Voters added Proposition 1 to the Texas Constitution in November. While the Right to Farm laws have similar goals, Proposition 1 is phrased broadly, stating “the people” have a right to farm.

Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, said the amendment could be interpreted to mean everyone is allowed to farm with no exceptions.

“There is at least a very good case to be made that an HOA is prevented from bringing any kind of an action to restrict an agricultural operation, which could include all of these backyard operations,” she said.

McGeary tried to get a separate bill passed to allow people to raise chickens under an HOA twice. In 2023, the backyard chicken bill passed through the state House of Representatives by a vote of 125 to 21, but it died in committee.

The backyard chicken bill

“In the Legislature, every bill has to go through a subject matter committee before it can come to the floor of the chamber, whether it's the House or the Senate,” McGeary said. “It is entirely within the discretion of the chairman or chairwoman of that committee whether to allow the bill to have a hearing even.”

A fluffy brown chicken in the grass behind a house
Renee Dominguez
KUT News
A 7-month-old chicken roams around the backyard of Combs' home.

Chairman Paul Bettencourt didn’t bring the backyard chicken bill to a hearing, so there’s no record of which senators opposed or supported the bill. This makes it hard to predict how a backyard chicken bill would fare in future legislative sessions.

Clinton Brown is the Austin chapter director of the Community Association’s Institute, an advocacy group for homeowners associations that opposes this type of legislation.

“We don't want to take away owners' rights,” he said. “If an association wants to allow for chickens, we think we should allow the owners to make that decision, not the government.”

What can be done?

An HOA board must bring amendments to a deed restriction to a vote if a certain threshold of homeowners requests it. If 67% of a community votes in favor of the amendment, it gets incorporated into the HOA’s rules, according to Brown.

CAI and Farm and Ranch Freedom are both waiting to see what each city — or the courts — decides on how the Right to Farm laws affect backyard chickens, if at all.

Austin Public Health, which oversees the municipal code on chickens here, was unable to get back to KUT with an answer on how Austin’s municipal code on backyard chickens might change.

So we may not know how the new Right to Farm laws will be enforced just yet, but here’s what’s certain: An HOA functions like any other governing body. People who want to raise chickens can petition their HOAs to allow them.

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