Fight for Food Sovereignty in Ferrysburg MI

What entails community change from a ‘bedroom community’ to a ‘barnyard community’?  If you’re Roger Jonas, chairperson of the Ferrysburg Planning Commission,  the answer is as simple as 2 goats, 5 chickens, or 4 rabbits.

The issue emerged last year when Adam and Amanda Montambo asked the city to allow them to continue to keep pet goats. The Montambos said Amanda Montambo and several of their children are allergic to cow’s milk and therefore used goat’s milk.   Tim Scarpino, a former Ferrysburg councilman & spokesperson for the petition group Ferrysburg Residents for Responsible Land Use, said council should not consider changing the rules to benefit only one family. During his presentation, he very helpfully showed a photograph factory farm eggsof lactose-free products available for purchase at a local grocery store.  Because, you know, I’m sure the Montambo’s had absolutely NO idea that there were such things available.

At this same city council meeting, Tim pointed out: “You have an obligation to represent the entire city, which makes me wonder why you are giving greater consideration to the supposed needs of one family over those of another.” See, what city council had failed to realize, was that despite the needs of one family and the vocal support of other members of the community, they had an obligation to the needs of those who don’t support the right to food sovereignty and keeping a paltry number of animals on private property.  I’m not sure what those needs are as they pertain to this, because despite reading every article I could on this subject, the only ‘need’ I saw expressed was “We are a quiet town, and it’s the hope of many of us to keep it that way“.  Since this hints at a level of ignorance of how little noise goats, chickens, or rabbits make, I’m forced to assume that this is a bit of hyperbole.

Lest he be thought to be a goat-hating fear monger, Mr. Scarpino has stated: “I got nothing against goats”*.  In fact, as the chairperson for the Zoning Board of Appeals, Tim Scarpino is more upset by the fact that council passed this without the approval of the Ferrysburg Planning Commission.  In the comments section of one of the articles, a reader pointed out that a lot of the controversy around keeping farm animals revolves around the misconception that a few chickens/goats will be as fundamentally neighborhood changing as a large scale farm operation, to which Tim replied:

A “lot of the controversy” is because the Ferrysburg City Council ignored 50+ years of zoning norms to create a land use in the City that our founders never intended.  In fact, one of them (92 years old) called me to say this ordinance is a bad idea. The Ferrysburg City Council, in passing this ordinance, ignored The Planning Commission, the city planning consultant and the Master Land Use Plan (which does note even mention the desire for farm animals on residential lots). If they are willing do that, then what other land use ordinances might they enact?*

So, for now, let’s pretend that this is the only issue and the entire reason for Tim getting so heavily involved in speaking out against this ordinance.  Oh, and let’s also ignore the pearl-clutching weirdness of the last sentence.

"If they allow 2 goats, what's next?  Lions, tigers, & bears? OH MY!!"
“If they allow 2 goats, what’s next? Lions, tigers, & bears? OH MY!!”

At the start of this all, Ferrysburg ordinance did not allow farm animals on lots less than 10 acres. There were no parcels that large within city limits, thus no farm animals were allowed in the city (sounds pretty similar to our old Ferndale lot size issue).   When the Montambo family was discovered with goats, the city laudably took immediate action to investigate solutions and amend their ordinance appropriately.  Council voted 7-0 on Nov. 20 2014 to send the well-debated farm animal ordinance back to the planners with the intent of getting it changed to allow goats, chickens and rabbits on lots larger than 1 acre, with a one-year special use permit.  While this might seem reasonable to most people, it seems that the Ferrysburg Planning Commission was slightly less amenable to the idea.  To quote a December 2014 article from the Grand Haven Tribune:

“What if we don’t do it?” Planning Commissioner John Reifel asked. “What if we don’t want to draft it?”

“We have to take control of this or they will spot zone and things will happen in random order,” Regina Sjoberg, who serves both on Ferrysburg City Council and the Planning Commission, warned the planning commissioners at their meeting last week. “I guarantee you, if we don’t draft something, they will. We have to have some kind of control, and the best we can do is damage control.”

Planning Commission Chairman Roger Jonas said he grew up on a farm and believes farm animals don’t belong within city limits. *

Oh sure.  That sounds like a well-balanced response by an open minded Planning Commission serving out their duty as representatives of their community.  Not biased or petulant at all.

After lengthy discussion, Ferrysburg planning commissioners directed city planner David Jirousek of Grand Rapids-based LSL Planning to create a draft ordinance, modeled after similar-size cities in Michigan.  Mr. Jirousek drafted the ordinance amendment for keeping chickens in Grand Rapids, which stipulated that chickens may only be kept on a lot which is at least 3,800 square feet in size.  3,800 square feet = .089 acres, for those like myself who struggle with conversions.  You can keep 4 chickens on a property under 5,000 sq ft, and 6 chickens on property over 5,000 sq ft.  While I can’t find documentation on the reasons behind Mr. Jirousek’s stance, he returned an opinion that Ferrysburg should not allow farm animals.  The question is, why- particularly given that Mr. Jirousek seems to grasp the increasing desire of communities to embrace self-sufficiency and revive familiarity with homesteading.  I haven’t been able to find that answer, and will keep looking.

The city of Ferrysburg has their Ferrysburg 2007 Master Land Use Plan online, which, like Mr. Scarpino said, did not reference a desire for farm animals on residential lots.  Is this really shocking or noteworthy?  I’ve only seen reference to farm animals in Master Plan’s for heavily agricultural areas, of which Ferrysburg is not.  However, their first goal, as stated in the plan, is thus:

Goal #1 : Maintain Ferrysburg’s small town character

I can’t think of anything more true to small town character than neighbors seeing an earnest desire of their fellow man to be healthy, happy & involved in local food, and working toward a goal that allows them to achieve that within reasonable bounds.  When the Zoning Appeals Board upheld the determination that farm animals were not allowed on the Montambos 1.4 acre property, given that the  ordinance was excessively restrictive (10 acres mandatory for farm animals, which doesn’t exist anywhere in the city), I would expect a small town to look on in compassion and with an eye for reasonable change,  rather than a foot stamp and a “not in my backyard” attitude.  50+ years of zoning hasn’t taken into account the fundamental shift in our relationship with food sources and an increasing desire to become involved in a sustainable, conscious lifestyle.  If the planning commission takes a moment to consider the dramatic increase in farmers markets in Michigan and the rapid adoption of backyard chicken keeping in major cities, then maybe they wouldn’t treat this like a nuisance request or something that needs to be stopped dead in its tracks. Maybe, for a moment, they could look at this as neighbors, and truly reflect on why they believe that ‘farm animals’ don’t belong in the city, as Planning Commission Chairman Roger Jonas has said.

Personally, I applaud Mayor Dan Ruiter, who stated “I want to support the current trends aimed at a healthier lifestyle for ourselves and our families”. Now THAT is what I expect when I think of ‘small town character’.

The ordinance is officially on the Nov 3rd 2015 ballot for Ferrysburg.  I hope that those who support it are able to be heard and gain the right to keep their animals.  I’ll also be paying attention to neighboring Grand Haven, a substantially larger city, and their current interest in adopting a backyard chicken ordinance.  If adopted, I wonder if that will change Tim Scarpino’s position on keeping chickens on residential lots of at least 1 acre.

Final thoughts:

What exactly would adoption of the ordinance mean for the city of Ferrysburg?

“When we talk with people about the implications of this zoning change and they understand what this may mean for the city, they begin to have doubts about the wisdom and need for this ordinance,” he said.*

“The success of this petition campaign demands the City Council not double-down on the flawed process that brought us this ordinance by ignoring the hundreds of voices calling for its repeal,” he said. “A vote by council not to repeal will set in motion a very spirited campaign to explain the practical difficulties of the ordinance, call into question the humaneness of keeping animals penned up on small residential lots, and make clear who supports that.”*

The new law allows residents to keep two goats, five chickens or four rabbits, as long as they provide a shelter and fenced-in area on the larger-than-one-acre lot.  This was already being done, by the Montambos, for some time… with no ill effect to the city, and no complaints from neighbors.  Codifying it provides an avenue to regulate through inspections and ensure that the animals welfare is maintained.  So, what ARE the implications of this ordinance change- and please, let them be based in FACT, rather than unfounded belief, fear, or an adherence to ignorance.

FACT: the ordinance, as currently proposed, is well within GAAMPs guidelines for animal keeping.

FACT: keeping small domestic farm animals like chickens, goats, and rabbits in small quantities is not a “civic oddity” (see Tim Scarpino’s comment TUE, 05/05/2015 – 4:52PM), and is being adopted by cities of all sizes nationally at a rapid pace

FACT: most cities don’t see a massive uptick in keeping chickens/goats/rabbits after an ordinance is adopted.  There’s little likelihood that the naysayers who are surrounded by eligible property will ever actually live next to a chicken/goat/rabbit.

Frankly, I’m saddened that this debate has raged on this long and with such bile from the side of those against the ordinance.  I’m saddened that there’s no middle ground, and no compassion for families like the Montambos- who, I’m sure, are not alone in their desire to keep a small number of animals.  More so, I’m saddened that Tim Scarpino, who clearly has a grasp of media and has masterfully positioned himself as the vocal point person against the ordinance, has repeatedly stated that this is bad for the city without ANY factual evidence to back that up, and no experience with ‘farm animals’ to cite.





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