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Chickens still on the table

By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– The North Liberty City Council is still trying to lay out the rules for keeping chickens inside city limits.
An ordinance proposed and considered at the July 23 council meeting was tabled after gathering additional feedback from the public.
In April, the council began considering whether to allow raising chickens in the city. As more people return to the practices of backyard food production, several North Liberty residents requested to have chicken coops on their properties. Ames, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Urbandale are among the larger Iowa communities that have adopted ordinances to allow them. Proponents say raising chickens in a backyard environment produces healthier birds than those raised in commercial facilities, and those birds are likely to produce more nutritious and better tasting eggs. In addition, raising chickens offers educational benefits to children, helping to teach animal care, encourages responsibility and helps them make first-hand connections about where food comes from.
Earlier this spring, the council was divided on the issue, with three councilors willing to consider the issue, and two who balked at the idea. As a group, the council directed City Attorney Scott Peterson to work with city administration staff to draft an ordinance for its consideration.
Chicken fans were able to weigh in on the parameters and limitations in the proposed ordinance last Tuesday. One common concern was the guidelines for locating coops on individual properties.
Daniela Williams of Locust Drive said requiring coops to be 25 feet from a neighbor’s property line would prohibit some people from having them, based on their lot configurations and sizes.
“If you are 25 feet from your property line a lot of people would have coops in the middle of the yards, which would not be aesthetically pleasing,” said Williams. She suggested 25 feet from a neighbor’s dwelling and just five feet from a property line, to mirror Iowa City’s guidelines, should be adequate.
Stephanie Seckel of Rebecca Street in the Broadmoor Estates subdivision said the 25-foot rule would eliminate most people in her neighborhood from keeping chickens.
“Of the seven properties I measured, not one of them could have (a coop), because there is no room to comply without the coop being up right next to the house,” said Seckel. “That violates regulations for outbuildings having to be 10 feet from their own property. So 25 feet might not be reasonable with the average side yards we have in North Liberty.”
Further, said Seckel, she learned from some of her neighbors were in favor of allowing Seckel to keep chickens, as long as they couldn’t see them from their own homes.
“We came to the agreement that, if the chickens should come, they asked that the pen or coop would have a solid side, so I could enjoy it but they don’t have to look at it,” Seckel said.
If getting neighbors’ consent remained part of the ordinance, said George Street resident Wayne Johnson, the distance rule might not be necessary anyway.
“In my case, the neighbors could care less where I put it, so it doesn’t seem right to restrict where I put it if nobody cares,” said Johnson.
But obtaining permission from all their neighbors before putting up a coop was another sticking point for fowl supporters; notification, rather than permission, should be enough.
“We definitely prefer ‘notification’ over ‘consent,’” said Williams. Cedar Rapids conducts its ordinance that way, along with a stipulation that neighbors have a certain amount of time to file written objections with the city if they don’t want their neighbors to have chickens.
Williams also said the requirement to have chickens okayed with respective homeowners’ associations seems reasonable, but it would not be fair to allows subdivision covenants to trump the city’s ordinance.
“We’re not stating you shouldn’t get permission from your homeowners’ association, but to have covenants be a restriction in getting a permit for chickens doesn’t fit with what the city council does,” said Williams. “When you get a fence permit, the city doesn’t check to make sure it is allowed as per your covenants, so we don’t believe the city should do it in the case of chickens either.”
Council member Chris Hoffman agreed with this argument, but wasn’t sure of its practical application.
“We don’t require folks to come in with the covenants for putting up a fence; however, if the incorrect fence is put up and it goes against the covenants, that fence has to be torn down. That is going to be the loss of money spent. Same thing with an outbuilding. I think we cannot interfere with the covenants. The city isn’t going to supersede what neighborhood covenants say.”
As for obtaining neighbors’ permission, Hoffman said he understood the concerns.
“I am not in favor of owners’ consent,” said Hoffman. “We don’t have to get permission from our neighbors to have pets, or if we put up an outbuilding on our property. Notification definitely; but it’s something that has to be worked out with your neighbors. That being said, if any of my surrounding neighbors put up a coop next to our property line, I wouldn’t be pleased about it either.”
Hoffman also wondered if the ordinance could be modified to restrict sight lines of neighboring coops instead of measuring the distance from property lines.
Mayor Tom Salm said because he expects most subdivision covenants to disallow chickens, the ordinance would impact mostly the older parts of town.
“That’s my back yard, basically, and I won’t be happy if someone wants to put chickens next to me. I’d raise Cain,” said Salm.
Council member Coleen Chipman said once again that she was entirely against the ordinance.
“I raised many chickens on the farm and there is a problem with attracting rodents; raccoons, mice, rats, foxes, snakes, all those things,” said Chipman. “Also, chickens are considered livestock; it’s not a pet. So if we allow chickens, are we going to have people coming to ask if they can have milking goats, pot bellied pigs, ferrets, or all the other critters that are considered livestock? If we allow (chickens), how are we going to deny any of those things?”
City administrator Ryan Heiar told the council if the ordinance were to pass, the city’s contractual agreement with the Cedar Valley Humane Society would also have to be changed, because the shelter has seen an uptick in people abandoning urban chickens.
“The animal shelter would want to negotiate a different fee if we allow chickens,” said Heiar. “They will accept chickens, but we would need to discuss (an additional) fee.”
Chipman questioned how much the fee would be, and how the ordinance might affect the city’s bottom line.
“This should not impact the city in any way as far as cost,” said Chipman. “And do we have the staff to follow up on renewal permits; making sure there is enough square footage for the chickens and that the chicken coop was installed properly; what if there is a problem between neighbors; all those things that are increased staff time that I have a concern with. How can we absorb that?”
Chipman emphasized that properties within the city that are zoned agriculture are already allowed to raise chickens.
There were enough suggestions for changes to the proposed ordinance that council member Gerry Kuhl moved to table action until city staff could make modifications and bring it back before the council. Kuhl’s motion passed 3-2.
Peterson said a revised urban chicken ordinance could return to the council’s meeting agenda as early as Aug. 13.