What's so difficult about chickens?

Chickens won’t be crossing the road into North Aurora, Illinois, anytime soon. The village trustees decided not to take up the issue of allowing chickens.

The Chicago Tribune quoted trustee Laura Curtis as commenting that, "People who move to the suburbs have a reasonable expectation of not living next to livestock. I, personally, would be very upset if my neighbors brought in chickens."

However, chickens are welcome in neighboring communities. Batavia and Naperville allow up to eight hens, while St. Charles allows a maximum of six hens. Roosters are not welcome. Village Administrator Steve Bosco said the three cities reported few or no complaints about residential chicken coops.

The Tribune report said that several trustees also expressed concern that allowing chickens could open the door to larger farm animals.

We would be inclined to call BS on that one, except for the recent news from Pittsburgh, where the City Council has not only made chicken-keeping less punitive, but has also added pigmy goats to the list of permitted livestock.

Pittsburgh residents who wanted to keep chickens previously had to pay fees totaling $340 and run a permitting gauntlet that could take up to three months. Under the new ordinance, the cost is $70 (still too much, in our opinion), and the time to get a permit is only one day. As a result of the high cost and bureaucratic complexity, chicken advocates estimate that there probably are as many as 500 “renegade farmers” who are illegally keeping chickens.

Under the new ordinance, residents who live on lots at least 2,000 square feet can now get permits for up to five chickens or ducks, or two dehorned miniature goats. Residents on larger lots may be able to keep additional chickens or ducks. Those living on lots with more than 15,000 square feet can keep at least one extra goat, plus one more for each additional 5,000 square feet.

That’s all good, but we have to wonder why Pittsburgh and other cities and villages insist on throwing up such barriers to chicken ownership, even when they, in theory, allow it. Excessive permitting costs, like poll taxes, are a good way to keep participation down. So are requirements that give neighbors a veto. Minneapolis has recently changed its ordinance so it no longer requires prospective chicken-keepers to get written approval from 80 percent of their neighbors. Think about that. Could you get 80 percent of your neighbors to agree on anything, or would the grumpy 20 percent veto just about anything fun?

Then there are some of our neighboring communities here in Southern Wisconsin that make it difficult in other ways. New Glarus, for example, requires one nest box per hen, which increases the size and cost of a chicken coop for no conceivable benefit. Was it just ignorance, or was it the village board’s purpose to make chickens more expensive and complicated so most people would just give up on the idea? We also heard about another community that restricts ownership to two hens. So unless you live alone, your micro-flock won’t produce enough eggs for you to enjoy free-range eggs on a regular basis.

Chicken ordinances aren’t rocket science. Hundreds of communities have enacted workable models that have stood the test of time. In those communities, including Madison, the animal control officers, zoning officials and police report virtually no complaints or serious violations. No renegade farmers. No chicken underground. Now it just remains for other communities to duplicate their success.