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NL scratching out a chicken ordinance

By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– As North Liberty continues to grow into a larger city, there are at least a few people who hope it will maintain at least one tie to its country roots.
A handful of residents have come forward to request and support a city ordinance to allow raising chickens within city limits.
The North Liberty City Council briefly discussed the request at the Tuesday, April 23, meeting, but no action was taken on the item.
Backyard food production is a growing trend in urban areas. Other Iowa cities that have allowed for keeping chickens include Ames, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Urbandale, Clive and Iowa City. Proponents maintain raising chickens in a more natural environment produces healthier birds– and therefore, more nutritious and better tasting eggs and meat– than those raised in commercial production facilities. Chickens droppings are a rich fertilizer for compost and gardens, and the birds’ diet provide natural, pesticide-free insect control. Further, raising chickens are a great way to teach children responsibility, care giving and food sources.
Supporter Katie Colony addressed this benefit in a letter to the council.
“As farmers, this point is the one that speaks to us loudest. Iowa and the heartland feed the world; however, a lot of children in Iowa still do not know where their food comes from,” Colony wrote. “That has begun to change with many of the programs the schools, the state, and the U.S. are implementing, but encouraging this in the home, at a city level, can make an even bigger impact.”
Other advocates for the practice have approached the city before, according to a memo provided by city administrator Ryan Heiar. In a July 2012 email communication to resident Daniela Williams, Heiar said someone else had asked city staff to introduce the idea of raising chickens in town about a year ago, but after staff had researched the issues associated with urban chickens– those of odors, noise, structures and impact on neighbors– city staff concluded they could not recommend the change to council.
“At this time that opinion has not changed, and we are not recommending changes to allow the raising of chickens,” Heiar told Williams.
However, the issue made its way to the council chamber last week, when three individuals came to the podium and made their case for raising chickens in town, including resident Wes Hepker.
“A lot of our neighbors who have kids also have urban gardens,” said Hepker. “We think chickens are a natural next step for fertilizer and eggs. We have our own restrictions of what we think is appropriate and mimics other city’s ordinances. We think (raising chickens) is a good fit for Iowa, and it would be a nice progressive move for North Liberty to think about allowing small scale hens in back yards.”
After hearing public comment, North Liberty City Council members Gerry Kuhl, Chris Hoffman and Brian Wayson expressed at least perfunctory support for considering an ordinance change, provided regulations and a permit process were part of the new law.
Councilor Terry Donahue said he was on the fence.
“I am a city boy at heart,” he said. “I’ve been in cities where people have raised rabbits and ferrets in the city. Maybe we could change our definition of ‘livestock’ not to include chickens?”
Neighborhood approval was also part of the discussion.
“I think in Iowa City’s ordinance, the neighbors have to approve,” said North Liberty Mayor Tom Salm. “If you have even one who is not happy, the chickens have to go.”
Hoffman said he wasn’t sure that should be a stipulation.
“Generally I don’t think you’ll get that much of a squawk,” Hoffman joked, but other councilors said taking a proactive approach and at least notifying neighbors would be a good idea.
City councilor Coleen Chipman was the only one who expressed firm opinion against allowing chickens. Though she was raised on a farm and took care of chickens, her daughter moved into a Des Moines residential area that allows them, she said.
“There were rats, there were mice. Rats and mice bring snakes. It smells. You can’t keep those kind of things away, and to subject your neighbors to that is not what I call being a good neighbor,” said Chipman.
Homeowners’ associations and subdivision covenants would remain in place, though, so a new city code would not change the rules in residential areas that do not allow for chickens.
“City ordinances cannot trump a more restrictive covenant,” said City Attorney Scott Peterson. “The city council does not approve or enforce covenants.”
The council directed city staff to create a draft ordinance for their consideration that would include restrictions and parameters for raising backyard chickens.
Peterson said he has experience with chicken ordinances in other communities.
“I think we can put something together, and bring up some points that have not been talked about, and bring it back for more discussion,” Peterson said.
City Planner Dean Wheatley said it was also important for people to gain basic education on chickens.
“How many people know a chicken can live for 15 years?” but only produce for a small number of years, Wheatley said. “I think people see them at Theisen’s and they all look pretty cute, but may not realize they are so long-lived.”
In her letter, Colony agreed that education on raising chickens is important.
“If there are still concerns about treatment of animals, effects on neighborhoods, and livestock nuisance, this can be another opportunity for community education through Hometown Rewards, just as composting, gardening, and rain water collection have been. It can be a positive change for so many people.”
Heiar said a draft ordinance will likely come before the council in late May or early June.