A policy with wings

Published 7:01 am Monday, June 16, 2014

It’s not every day you get to talk about chicken feces at a city council meeting.

Brittany Perry didn’t mind. The Austin City Council was in the middle of a discussion on a potential chicken ordinance during its June 2 meeting and she was there to listen, offer research and advocate for Austin residents who want to raise chickens in their backyards.

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When Mayor Tom Stiehm grew concerned about chicken feces as an issue should the city pass a chicken ordinance, Perry was there to explain how chicken feces had less bacteria than other animal waste and could be used as garden fertilizer. Plus, chickens don’t produce as much waste as domestic animals, according to Perry.

“It’s all in how you take care of them,” she told the council.

Despite Perry’s research and the support of about 15 residents at the meeting, council members decided 4-3 to table a potential ordinance.

For Perry, the decision is just another step toward a larger discussion about chickens.

“I’m not discouraged at all,” she said. “It’s government, and I definitely was happy they tabled it instead of saying no.”

Perry is the latest in a long line of residents across the state who have petitioned their local governments to raise chickens in urban settings. It’s a growing issue within many communities and Austin’s city council is likely to discuss a chicken ordinance again.

Hatching an ordinance

Raising chickens has become a popular issue for local governments to tackle in recent years as dozens of communities across Minnesota have passed urban chicken ordinances.

“It’s been a hot topic I’d say in the past five years,” said Edward Cadman, staff counsel for the League of Minnesota Cities. “I’d actually say it’s slowed down a little bit in recent time.”

The League has received requests from dozens of communities over the past several years for guidance on chicken ordinances, according to Cadman. Thus far, five municipalities have contacted the League this year for sample chicken ordinances and 18 communities sought guidance in 2013.

A chicken ordinance is in place in Albert Lea and has been for several years. Rochester, Winona and Mankato have chicken ordinances as well. In the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul both have ordinances, as do smaller suburbs like Eagan, Farmington, Burnsville, Rosemount, and Maplewood. Even places like Duluth and Brainerd have chicken ordinances.

Not every Minnesota municipality has passed a chicken policy. Red Wing’s city council voted down a potential ordinance in 2010 and the Stewartville City Council is holding a public hearing to gauge public interest on July 8.

The Austin City Council decided to discuss an ordinance after Council Member Judy Enright asked staff to look into the issue at a council work session in May. Enright said she had been approached by several people over the years and decided to ask about an ordinance after she talked with Perry.

Perry was thrilled the city would look into an ordinance, though she was a little surprised at how soon the council discussed the issue.

Brittany Perry kisses her four-year-old son, Connor Jedidiah, while standing with boyfriend, Dave Majerus, at their home in southeast Austin. Perry is leading a push to get the Austin City Council to pass an ordinance to allow hens to be raised in city limits. -- Photos by Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Brittany Perry kisses her four-year-old son, Connor Jedidiah, while standing with boyfriend, Dave Majerus, at their home in southeast Austin. Perry is leading a push to get the Austin City Council to pass an ordinance to allow hens to be raised in city limits. — Photos by Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

“I thought I would have the summer to talk to people around town and see what they were thinking,” she said.

The council decided to examine the issue sooner rather than later, though not everyone agreed that chickens should be raised within city limits.

“I think there’s a reasonable expectation of anybody living in the city that they are going to have certain ordinances and a certain lifestyle that doesn’t involve farm animals,” said Council Member Steve King.

King was against a chicken ordinance in Austin from the beginning. He remembers living next to someone who raised chickens illegally in town and didn’t enjoy how loud the chickens could be.

“It just didn’t sit well with me,” he said.

King wasn’t alone. At least eight people have stopped him in the street to discuss the ordinance and all but one have been against raising chickens in Austin.

Other council members heard the same complaints. Roger Boughton told the council during its June 2 meeting that he hadn’t heard any positive comment on the ordinance. In fact, most people he spoke to thought it was a joke.

Stiehm agrees.

“I think a lot of people look at it as a silly issue,” he said.

Stiehm is also against a chicken ordinance as he’s concerned about noise and smell complaints from people who live next to residents who raise chickens. He is surprised by how few complaints other cities have received after passing a chicken ordinance, however.

“They haven’t had the issues I would have expected,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I’m in favor of it.”

Yet some council members are in favor of an ordinance. Council Member Michael Jordal joined Jeremy Carolan and Janet Anderson to vote against tabling the issue on June 2, though they were outvoted by King, Boughton, Enright and Jeff Austin.

“A lot of other communities have done this,” Jordal said.

Jordal had heard a lot of positive support for an ordinance and had hoped Austin would draft a chicken ordinance of its own. He was disappointed the council decided to table the issue, as it could be a sustainable, green policy for the city.

“I think Austin is kind of lagging behind and not embracing the future,” he said.

 ah.09.15.aA serious issue

Perry may have been pleased the council didn’t outright vote the issue down, but she had hoped the council would treat the issue seriously and was concerned when some members appeared to make light of a chicken ordinance.

“I was disappointed that it seemed to be a joke almost,” she said.

Perry isn’t done researching or talking to other residents. She has gathered dozens of ordinances and studies for council members to look at. She has also posted much of what she has found on Facebook, through her “Austin Backyard Chickens” page, where she lists articles and studies on both sides of the issue. Though she supports raising chickens in Austin, she doesn’t want an ordinance if it wouldn’t be a good fit for the city.

She plans to write to other cities in Minnesota that have ordinances in place to get feedback from their police, council members and administration on raising chickens in an urban setting.

“If it worked for one community, it should work for another,” Perry said. “And if not, we can find out why.”

Jordal is pleased residents are putting effort into researching the issue, but doesn’t expect the council to look at the issue any time soon. Neither does King or Stiehm, as the council has other issues to deal with over the next few months. The council could discuss a chicken ordinance after the November election, as four city council seats are up for grabs with at least one new council member guaranteed. Until then, advocates like Perry will be busy trying to help create a chicken ordinance, even if that includes talking about chicken feces.

“I think it’s a good thing that it went out to city council, because now people know,” she said. “Maybe in a few months it can be presented as a serious issue.”