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Chickens step forward

Backyard hens clawed a step toward reality on Wednesday with a nearly unanimous City Council vote.

The Planning Commission now will study the matter of whether to allow backyard hens throughout the city and recommend either no changes in city ordinance or moving forward with changing the ordinance to allow them.

“It’s encouraging,” Rebecca Franklin, an advocate of allowing backyard hens, said after the work session vote.

Public input is of vital importance, City Council members and staff agreed.

“Public input is not only necessary, but we think it’s critical,” City Manager Patrick Roberts said.

Earlier in the work session, acting Planning Director Bob Goumas gave a report on backyard hens that was an update of a 2015 report. Councilman Tim Johnson has led the charge to get the city to consider the issue.

Currently, chickens are allowed only on lots zoned agricultural, rural residential or rural estate. Goumas said about 68 percent of the city’s land area allows chickens. They are prohibited in all other zoning districts.

Among the things the Planning Commission may consider will be minimum lot sizes, the maximum number of chickens, housing and care requirements, biosecurity and prohibiting roosters, Goumas said.

He said the city recently heard from a commercial poultry group that expressed concern over infectious diseases among chickens that can be spread without proper precautions.

“In particular, they noted the devastation that the avian influenza outbreak has had in the past,” he said.

Even so, City Council members deemed the issue worthy of consideration.

Several said the city’s regulations, should backyard hens be allowed, should include a permitting process.

“It needs to be concise and reasonably restricted so it doesn’t have an adverse effect on neighbors,” Councilman Mike Duman said.

In a potential sticking point for chicken-lovers in the rural residential and rural estate zonings, additional restrictions imposed as part of any new ordinance may actually prohibit chickens on certain smaller lots. Duman wondered whether current chicken owners could be grandfathered into the ordinance, a matter that would have to be considered along with other topics.

Rose Brown, an advocate of backyard hens, said any new regulations that force people to give up chickens they already have would find many detractors.

“Some people have had their chickens, their babies, for years,” she said. “I never knew that chickens would run toward you and actually crouch to be petted.”

Mayor Linda T. Johnson mentioned that many property owners might unknowingly be prohibited from owning chickens no matter what. She looked up the deed restrictions for her own property and found a “no chickens” clause.

Councilman Roger Fawcett encouraged public input throughout the process.

“I would very strongly encourage public input, because whatever the outcome is, you’re going to have to live with that,” he said.

Councilman Don Goldberg was the only vote against sending the issue to the planning department for study.