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Chicken ordinance gains some ground

Council passes first reading

NORTH LIBERTY– The North Liberty City Council is ready for chickens… with reservations.
After a lot of talking, a little squawking and considerable balking, the council approved the first reading of an ordinance that will allow certain residents to keep chickens in town.
Parts of an urban chicken ordinance have been scratched out and rewritten several times in the last few months, but staff presented changes last Tuesday, Aug. 12, that three councilors could live with, at least for awhile.
“I think we could write in a sunset clause to give it a year to see what happens,” said council member Gerry Kuhl. “So we are not bound to it for the next so many years.”
The proposed ordinance does sunset on Dec. 31, 2014, which allows the city staff and council to revisit it again next summer to determine if it has been a success for the public.
If the ordinance passes its next two readings, residents who live in single-family or zero lot line dwellings may keep a maximum of four domestic chickens in an outdoor coop that provides at least four square feet and no more than 12 square feet of space per bird. It sets forth several design, construction, location and maintenance requirements for coops, as well as standards for keeping them clean, safe and sanitary.
Chicken keepers must apply for a permit, but there are other measures included that will separate the casual hobbyist from those serious about raising the birds: applicants must complete a class on the proper ways to raise urban chickens, must agree to allow city personnel on their property at any time and without notice to inspect the operation, and must pay a $250 deposit in addition to the $20 annual permit fee and $3 fee per band for each bird.
“The deposit would go a long way in making sure people are doing this for the right reason,” said council member Chris Hoffman.
It’s a stiff up-front cost, but the council wants to build it in to cover potential costs the city might incur should anyone run afoul of the new regulations.
First, the city bears the cost of housing stray or unwanted chickens in the Cedar Valley Humane Society, just as it does for dogs or cats that are picked up in North Liberty and taken to the shelter. The fee is $20 per day for a chicken, and $75 to release the bird to its owner; the owner pays if the chicken can be claimed, but if the bird is abandoned and untagged, the city absorbs the expense. Second, there is staff time involved in issuing permits, keeping records, inspecting the coops and following up on complaints. How much time, though– and the compensation for such time– is difficult to quantify, said City Administrator Ryan Heiar.
“We know 95 percent of the people who have a dog– or want a chicken– are going to follow the rules,” Heiar said. “But there are always a couple people out there that don’t, and that small percentage causes the most work.”
Heiar offered an example of staff time involved when a complaint is received in other areas, like a neighbor violating a nuisance ordinance; to create and serve a citation, track the case, communicate with the property owner, and potentially go to court to settle a municipal infraction, all takes between five to seven hours, depending on the situation and how cooperative the property owner is.
Resident Danielle Williams of Locust Drive offered a suggestion for how the city might save the cost of boarding chickens at the humane society. When Iowa City adopted its urban chicken ordinance, she said, a couple of local animal rescue organizations offered to take unwanted chickens for a certain period of time from the ordinance’s enactment. Heiar noted that taking them to a locker to be butchered and donated was not an option, as locker facilities have very strict regulations about the animals they accept, and those around here are not set up to handle undocumented chickens. Council member Brian Wayson asked that the specifics of how the city will deal with unwanted chickens be nailed down before the next vote.
Finally, the council was reminded again that adopting the ordinance would not supersede specific homeowners’ association rules or neighborhood covenants; those rules would still be in effect, and as always, it would be up to the associations or developers to enforce them if someone decided to keep chickens where it is not allowed.
However, none of the councilors who support the ordinance were in favor of requiring permission from adjoining neighbors.
“It seems to me that that gives one person a lot of power, say if three neighbors are in favor, and one says no, or if someone moves in and says no,” said council member Gerry Kuhl. “I think that language could be softened.”
In the end, the language was stricken all together.
Despite two councilors’ opposition– Coleen Chipman remained concerned that it set a precedent for allowing livestock of other kinds, would attract rodents or vermin and take too much staff time to administer, and councilor Terry Donahue echoed many of her concerns– Hoffman, Kuhl and Wayson supported the ordinance with the addition of a required deposit and the removal of the requirement of neighbor permission.
“I say we try it,” said Hoffman, though he suggested limiting the number of permits issued each year, a restriction that was not written into the amendment. “A lot of covenants out there are not going to allow it and I don’t think we are going to get more than a couple of applications anyway. I would ask the rest of you to consider some sort of compromise, keep it small, and give the opportunity to see what it does to a neighborhood. We’ve been progressive in other ways, and we are a developing community. I think we could at least try it.”
The second vote on the ordinance is expected to reappear on the council’s Aug. 27 meeting agenda.