SAN LEANDRO -- More than 16,000 homes in San Leandro may now have up to four chickens in their backyard without a city permit under new rules approved by the City Council last week. The council also tightened restrictions on residential beekeepers.

The rules approved Tuesday come after nearly four years of debate over how to regulate the urban farming practices of city residents, some of whom have lived in the city since its earlier, more rural days.

Residents citywide living on property 4,500 square feet in size or larger now have the right to keep up to four chickens without a permit or inspection. Those who want to keep up to 10 chickens, or those who live on smaller lots, must apply for a $15 city permit and get a city inspection.

Cynthia Chandler’s chicken, Dover, reaches for some treats on the bench in her backyard in San Leandro, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. Chandler
Cynthia Chandler's chicken, Dover, reaches for some treats on the bench in her backyard in San Leandro, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. Chandler and her family own four chickens and spoke out recently against the city of San Leandro's new chicken ordinance. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

The city previously only allowed chickens in a special "residential outer" district on the west side of town, but Police Department officials said they received an average of one chicken complaint a week from areas throughout the city.

Chickens must now be kept in a fenced-in yard at the rear of the house. The coop must meet certain size and height requirements, be at least 20 feet away from an adjacent dwelling and at least 5 feet away from a residential property line.

Residential beekeeping was allowed in the past as long as the hives were kept at least 600 feet away from any dwelling. Now, only lots 6,000 square feet or larger may keep beehives, up to a three hive maximum, and an inspection and permit is required. About 5,700 single family homes in the city are eligible, city data shows.

Beehives must be kept at the rear of the house at least 5 feet away from a neighboring property line, and 50 feet away from any dwelling. The hive must be closely surrounded by a 6-foot-high solid fence and a reliable source of water must also be provided.

Police Chief Sandra Spagnoli told the council a permit process for both chickens and bees would allow animal enforcement to mediate and address concerns raised by neighbors.

Before approving the rules, the council reduced the minimum lot size eligible for a four-chicken permit waiver from 6,000 square feet staff recommended to 4,500 square feet. The reduction allowed 10,000 more single family homes to bypass the permit and city inspection, limiting police ability to address neighbor concerns common from smaller lots, Spagnoli said.

But it was other portions of the new rules that proved to be the most controversial at the City Council meeting.

The rules proposed by Spagnoli and city staff would have allowed animal control officials to inspect the premises where an animal with a permit is kept "at any reasonable hour."

Cynthia Chandler’s chickens, Dover and Fred enjoy some  treats in her backyard in San Leandro, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013.  Chandler and her
Cynthia Chandler's chickens, Dover and Fred enjoy some treats in her backyard in San Leandro, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. Chandler and her family own four chickens and spoke out recently against the city of San Leandro's new chicken ordinance. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

That raised the ire of several meeting attendees, including chicken-owner Cynthia Chandler, a law professor at Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco.

"This policy, as written, specifically allows warrantless searches of people's enclosed backyards to which they have a legitimate expectation of privacy without cause," Chandler told the council. "It is wholly unconstitutional."

Before night's end, the council added language that required animal control officers to have "reasonable suspicion" of a code violation before they can inspect a property with a permit.

The city's requirement for owners to get immediate medical treatment for "unsightly" chickens also troubled Chandler.

"I don't know if any of you have ever seen a chicken that is molting, which is a natural annual process, but they are fairly unsightly," she said.

Other chicken owners praised the city for expanding their urban farming rights.

"We have had chickens for as long as I have lived in San Leandro," said Wafaa Aborashed, president of the Davis West Neighborhood Group. "We are part of an old farmland in this area and it is important San Leandro do the right thing in this area and you are doing it."

Chicken and beekeeping permits have to be renewed every two years. Roosters are banned, but existing roosters in the residential outer district in the Mullford Gardens area are grandfathered in.

Ashly McGlone covers San Leandro, San Lorenzo, San Ramon and the Washington Township Health Care District. Contact her at 510-293-2463. Follow her at Twitter.com/ashlyreports.