The age-old spat between owners of raucous chickens and their angry neighbors probably dates to the advent of agriculture. Now a proposed county bill seeks to restrict noisy rooster farms nestled in tightly packed Big Island neighborhoods.
The issue pits farmers who consider roosters a hallmark of country life against homeowners who say their peace of mind is rattled by the incessant crowing of birds tethered just a few feet from their bedroom windows.
Neighborly attempts to resolve these disputes outside of legislation are crimped by interests in underground cockfighting, a lucrative but illegal gambling activity viewed by some residents as a cultural rite.
The ordinance would establish a 75-foot buffer zone between the roosters and the property perimeter. A rooster farm is defined in the bill as any enterprise in which more than four roosters are tethered, caged or otherwise kept.
Rather than chicken farms that produce eggs or meat, the legislation specifically targets roosters bred to fight.
“Cockfighting is illegal, but it’s happening, and there’s a lot of money at stake,” said Puna Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara, who said her office fields more constituent complaints about roosters than any other topic.
“I’ve heard you can get up to $13,000 a bird,” O’Hara said. “They’re even boarding birds here for people on Oahu who live in condominiums and can’t keep a fighting cock, and then they fly over on the weekend for the fight.”
“I lost one home to flooding near Seattle seven years ago and, what, now I’m going to lose another one to roosters?” — Debi Muncey
The birds are sometimes locally bred and then shipped to places like Guam and the Philippines, where rooster fighting is a multimillion-dollar industry regulated by the government. Roosters are also bred as show birds, pets or as essential accessories to hen farms.
The Humane Society of the United States announced its support for the legislation, noting that the breeding of fighting birds poses a disease threat to legitimate agricultural operations.
But Puna chicken farmer Emily Taaroa expressed concern about the 75-foot buffer zone, as it could reduce the amount of land she can farm by about 30 percent. She and her husband raise poultry primarily for meat, keeping roosters alongside their hens.
“We use our 25-acre property from edge to edge,” the Punachicks Farm proprietor said. “I know the spirit of the law is not directed toward farmers like us, but if somebody were to enforce that kind of limit it would cause us a lot of problems.”
O’Hara said she intends to ensure that the proposal, which she will introduce to the Hawaii County Council Planning Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t threaten legitimate farms.
“There are some old-school guys raising roosters properly, and we want them to be able to continue to do that,” O’Hara said. “In other cases you’ve got 100 roosters in little A-frame tin shacks, which some people are calling ‘cocktaminiums.’”
The problem is particularly pronounced in Puna, where more than a dozen sprawling substandard subdivisions are zoned for agriculture.
In the 1960s and ’70s, developers sought agricultural designation for these land tracts as a means of skipping out on the obligation to provide infrastructure. Residents in several subdivisions continue to be responsible for their own water, waste, electricity and roads.
Most of the lots, which number more than 50,000, are undeveloped. But as Puna’s population explodes at a rate higher than anywhere else in the the state, land use squabbles grow increasingly heated.
Making matters worse is that many of the lots, including all 8,850 in the Hawaiian Paradise Park subdivision, are less than 150 feet wide. For better and for worse, residents here very quickly get to know their neighbors.
“The lots are long and skinny and it’s just going up as fast as people can build,” O’Hara said. “People started moving in as early as the mid-1970s thinking, ‘I’m in the country, I can do whatever I want.’ Now that you’ve got these subdivisions filling in it’s creating all kinds of use conflicts. None of the other islands have this situation that Puna does.”
Her proposed legislation has generated a frenzy of name-calling and threats. In rural backyards and neighborhood meeting rooms, bill proponents worried that pre-dawn crowing could sink their property values are facing off against rooster owners who question why these tranquility-seekers moved to the Puna district, which is almost exclusively zoned for agriculture.
“It’s getting really intimidating,” said Puna resident Terri Stratton. “At a community meeting, two rooster farmers stood at the door with their arms folded across their chest and just glared at everyone testifying against them.”
When Debi Muncey, 65, moved to Hawaiian Paradise Park three years ago, there were no nearby roosters.
A year later, her next-door neighbor tethered a handful of birds to the fence that divides his property from hers. Now she estimates he’s raising a couple dozen roosters just a few feet beyond her guest bedroom window.
“Everyone says, ‘Talk to your neighbor,’” Muncey said. “But when I talk to my neighbor I get, ‘If you don’t like it, move.’ So what do I do? Do I continue to plant fruit trees and invest in my property? I can’t even have my grandchildren come and stay with me anymore because they can’t stand it.”
Debi Muncey recorded this audio of roosters crowing next door to her home in Hawaiian Paradise Park.
Apart from the incessant screeching, Muncey said she’s troubled that her neighbor raises the birds for cockfighting. The evidence — a fighting ring and spotlights — is in plain sight, she said.
Every so often, Muncey said her neighbor will host a cockfight, which draws a crowd and pollutes the night air with shrieks from birds in a fight for their life.
“I’m horribly, horribly depressed,” Muncey said. “I lost one home to flooding near Seattle seven years ago and, what, now I’m going to lose another one to roosters?”
Malia Bohol, an Hawaiian Paradise Park resident who raises three roosters alongside hens, goats, sheep, pigs, dogs and a cat, said she’s unsympathetic to homeowners who find the signature sounds of rural Hawaii unpleasant.
“If you want to get rid of cockfighting, change enforcement of the laws we already have against it.” — Malia Bohol
“I believe that when somebody moves onto or purchases agricultural land to get able to farm or raise their animals in peace, it should be left that way,” Bohol said. “It shouldn’t be changed by people who move onto ag land because it’s affordable and then decide to try to change the guidelines to fit their needs.”
Bohol, who authored an online petition against the bill, scoffs at the draft legislation’s definition of a rooster farmer as anyone maintaining more than four birds. It’s not economical, she said, for anyone raising chickens for meat or eggs to keep only four roosters or less.
As for those who intend to use the ordinance to curb cockfighting, Bohol said their efforts could unfairly hamper proper farmers’ hobbies and businesses.
“Don’t change agricultural land laws for cockfighting,” she said. “If you want to get rid of cockfighting, change enforcement of the laws we already have against it.”
Apart from noise issues, the bill proposal seeks to save property values from plummeting when a rooster-rattled homeowner puts up a for-sale sign.
Puna resident and realtor Ed Torrison said he once successfully sold a home next door to a rooster farm — but not without several rounds of price decreases.
“One of the inherent rights of property ownership is peace of mind,” Torrison said. “And roosters destroy peace of mind.”
Still, Torrison said he views the proposed legislation as impractical. He said it would, in effect, outlaw rooster farms throughout the entirety of some Puna subdivisions, including Hawaiian Paradise Park, where the lots are too slender to allow for a 75-foot buffer. And besides, he added, a gaggle of roosters is still deafeningly loud from a 75-foot distance.
“I don’t like the idea of fighting roosters,” Torrison said. “It’s brutal and it’s illegal and nobody is doing anything about it. That’s the real problem we should be working to fix instead of this.”
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