Why Backyard Chicken Ordinances Matter

fb_img_1471143868977As a member of the Michigan Small Farm Council, I’m obligated to say that I firmly believe that everyone should have the right to farm. Our Michigan Right to Farm Act, the strongest pro-farm protection in the US, theoretically can provide protection to those with backyard chickens. However, in practicality, it doesn’t matter, despite state law superseding local ordinances. Imagine, for instance, that you receive a notice of violation from your local code enforcement officer stating you have 10 days to remove the chickens from your property before you begin accruing fines and have your animals removed.  Imagine trying to tell your code enforcement officer that you are protected under state law, and that they can’t take your chickens away.

The bottom line is they can, because they believe they can.  If you interfere with animal control officers removing your chickens, you’ll be facing much harsher charges.  You will receive more fines, more tickets.  Taking your fight to city hall, trying to explain your case, will be an arduous, slow moving process.

A recent example is Bob Perye of Berkley Michigan, a local business owner of the popular BBQ food truck The Rogue Estate. For years he kept a small flock of hens in his backyard, quietly selling eggs to appreciative neighbors and enjoying the benefits of backyard chickens. One call from a spiteful teenage neighbor was all it took for code enforcement to stop by, issue a citation, and force Bob to rehome his birds.  3 months later, after many emails and phone calls and consistent proactive effort, backyard chickens STILL aren’t on the agenda for discussion at Berkley City Council.  There’s no telling when it will be.  It’s not a high priority issue for those it doesn’t directly impact, and council members are often hesitant to ‘rock the boat’ and introduce an issue that people are often divided on. Meanwhile, Bob misses and worries about his birds, and sudden change like this is incredibly hard on chickens- in fact, one of his hens suddenly and mysteriously went lame, which could be an underlying issue that suddenly reared it’s head due to the stress the bird is under.

In an effort to help council understand the reasons they should allow backyard chickens, Bob compiled a ton of information on the benefits of hens and attempts to allay some of the fears people might have in his document, A Request To Allow Domestic Chickens As Pets In Berkley. His document is a perfect example of how to get chickens legalized in your city, and getting that document in front of council members has been a top priority.  He’ll need to continue to push to get the issue added to the agenda to find out if anyone has actually read it, and since so much time has elapsed it’s prudent to start trying to contact media to give attention to the issue.  With so many cities surrounding his allowing backyard chickens, it’s hard to imagine that Berkley won’t- they can, however, drag their feet for as long as they want.

This is why I’m such an advocate for working with your city on crafting a backyard chicken ordinance before you need it.  Nobody wants a long fight, and despite this seeming like a simple issue, it often gets brushed aside repeatedly before being addressed by city council. The wheels of change move slowly, the wheels of enforcement move quickly.

And, as always, be prepared to refute the frothing-at-the-mouth claims of those against backyard chickens.  For an example of some of what you’ll hear, listen to this Wilmington City Council meeting (linked directly to the portion that begins public comment).  The woman requesting the implementation of a backyard chicken ordinance was unable to be there due to illness- her detractors were out in force.  The fears of these neighbors made this balloon into a witch hunt, with them traveling to her previous home to take pictures of it, investigating her personally, “what about the children?!” claims that they’ll hug chickens and die from salmonella, etc.  This might be an extreme example, but I’ve heard all the same claims before, time and time again.

In short, if you want backyard chickens, be prepared to advocate and potentially fight for them.  In almost every case, you’ll need to, either by contending with opposition or the inertia of government.

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