Cracking the Chicken Code: How to Change Local Backyard Poultry Ordinances

Reader Contribution by Michelle Bruhn and Forks In The Dirt
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Are you like me and put the egg before the chicken? Were you ready to roll with your new flock of feathered friends only to realize there’s a law against it? You’re not alone — and you don’t have to take no for an answer.

I was shocked when I found out our city had a municipal ordinance that made it illegal to raise backyard hens. We’d moved less than 5 miles but had to give up our girls when we moved in.  So, in 2016 I worked with my city council to change our municipal ordinance. Beyond voting, I’d never been involved in anything governmental. If I can do this, anyone can do this!

Many cities are changing their chicken code, following the increase of homeowners who are interested in gaining more control over their own food sources. Whatever you reason for wanting to raise your own backyard hens, know that the work is more than repaid in delicious, nutritious eggs, from eating your kitchen scraps, creating amazing compost not to mention the entertainment and garden companionship a backyard flock provides. As one survey reports, most urban/suburban chicken keepers have been at this five years or less. Just another reason to stay tuned into your online news sources for up to date information.

Here are some easy steps to follow to help you change the Chicken Code in your neck of the woods!

What’s on the Books?

The first step is to find out your city’s current municipal ordinances for backyard chickens. You can start by searching your city’s website. It’s usually under municipal code (get ready to search for a bit) usually listed under ‘keeping of animals’. Here’s how our Keeping of Pigeons and Chicken Ordinance reads now.

Or if you don’t have the patience for that, and don’t mind the city knowing you’re questioning this, you can call the main admin number and ask them to direct you to the correct part of the code. Also, good to note when the current code was adopted.

Lay of the Land

I talked with neighbors and friends about how they felt about allowing our suburb to raise backyard chickens. The responses skewed from middle of the road, to positive, to absolutely outraged that there was a law stating we couldn’t keep chickens.

Find out the history regarding the current chicken laws from past and present city council members. Our city had seen a hot debate that vetoed legalizing backyard chickens a few years earlier, and this was still on the minds of some of the city council members when I began the process.

In light of the existing councilmembers, I chose to wait almost a year until some new city council members were elected. If we had brought it up to a council where the two main naysayers were still sitting, and it didn’t pass, it would have been many years until the council would have considered hearing the issue again. I chose to play it safe.

Gathering your Flock

I quickly learned that lots of people are involved in making any municipal code change. My newly elected city council member, Bill Walsh, took the time to set up a meeting and hear me out. He had done his homework before our meeting and agreed the time was right. Soon we were working with our city staff; for us it was the Planning and Zoning Coordinator.

I gathered basic info on 12 of the surrounding city’s laws. All cities that allowed raising chickens required some form of a permit. Prices were all over the place from $30 for a two-year permit to $75 for an initial application and $50 annual fee to keep the hens licensed.

I also spoke with the surrounding city staff regarding any complaints. The only registered complaints were from neighbors who heard roosters crowing, and those had been easy, if not pleasant, to deal with.

No city that I know of allows for roosters: the crowing is LOUD and EARLY! If you really want a rooster, it’s time to move to that farm you’ve always wanted.

I was also still communicating with my pro-chicken people, keeping them up to date and asking for input along the way. This meant I had a core group of people dubbed the Coop Troop, who were ready to talk about the benefits of raising chickens when it came time for the City Council meeting.

MOTHER EARTH NEWS itself has drafted its own Statement on Chicken Ordinances which is a great way to get the ball rolling when sending emails to gather support! Another great place to gather supporters is you local Feed Mill or chicken hatchery; since they are the places that sell the chicks and feed, they are a natural hub for chicken lovers.

We did it Our Way

Most City ordinances around us license the hens, but we wanted to license the chicken coop. This allows for a one-time involvement from the city instead of annual paperwork. It also generates some decent income for the city. Having a building/zoning permit for the coop also relieved some of the previous fears that people were going to have dilapidated shacks for coops (read lowered home values).

We compared recommended coop sizes and run areas. We thought about the height of fencing for the run and the yard. We talked about making sure the hens were safe over the cold Minnesota winters, which brought up extension cords as a fire hazard (they were ultimately accepted, as requiring people to dig underground conduit was found excessive). But these were all realities that needed to be dealt with.

We also suggested an article with more facts about raising hens be included when anyone goes in to request the coop permit. Our city wanted to educate on the front end to hopefully avoid issues later on. The City staff had a Hens/Pigeons Agreement prepared in time for the council meeting.

Getting our Voices Heard

Once we felt we had gathered enough information, we got it on the City Council Meeting Agenda. This process was carried out by my city council member. Any citizen can bring up an issue, but there can be a fee involved; which is why I choose to work with my elected officials from the start.

We spread the word that the council would have an open forum for the issue at that meeting through some social media platforms, emails and word of mouth. (Looking back, I could have put up info at the feed mills too.) I gathered the “Coop Troop” to speak on the issue and for moral support, we were ready for the city council meeting.

Of the dozen or so people who spoke to the issue that night, only one was against it. He was however very angry and ended up having a definite impact.

Once they closed the public forum part of the meetings and started discussing the issue, the council members brought up more questions. One question asked was if we’d have the right to butcher our own birds. Luckily one council member mentioned that we let deer hunters butcher their meat, so we should let hen owners do the same.

The city also brought up composting of spent coop hay and chicken manure. Many of the people who spoke in favor of the ordinance talked about how great the spent hay and chicken poop is for their gardens- the city reminded us that no homeowner can compost animal waste on their property. I’m not going to say what I do, but boy I grow some amazing vegetables in my gardens.

The Final Ordinance

The info gathering and speaking in public was all worth it. We ended up with a unanimous vote to legalize backyard chicken keeping! But it was a compromise; we asked for six hens but were allowed four.

The city council increased the setback footage for the chicken coops from neighboring homes. They also updated language regarding carrier pigeons and added backyard Bee Hives to the list of acceptable animal husbandry in our suburb. Overall, a win-win-win for the homeowner, the chickens, and the environment.

Fresh Eggs Daily

Currently in our town of roughly 26,000 we have 14 chicken coop licenses issued in the last three years. One of the fears of the former city council was that if they allowed raising backyard chickens everyone was going to do it. But raising hens for eggs in a backyard takes work, and not everyone is ready for that commitment. For those of us that are ready to put all our eggs in one coop, it is worth every bucket of water and scoop of poop!

For more info on why I think it’s SO worth it to have your own backyard flock, read another blog post of mine, Chickens in the Hood  found on my Forks in the Dirt website.

Links for reference: From the City of White Bear Lake, MN OUR APPLICATION for a chicken coop license (including educational info), and our current Keeping of Pigeons and Chickens municipal ordinance.

Michelle Bruhnis a farmers market coordinator and local food advocate in Minnesota, where sheForks in the Dirt, a website that supports local farmers with interviews, social media, and other promotion. Connect with Michelle on FacebookandInstagram.

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