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Wauwatosa approves chicken ordinance

Council debates long and hard before a divided vote

Feb. 6, 2013

By the time the chicken ordinance was approved, almost every member of the Common Council had spoken on the issue, and a number had made their feelings known two or three times.

The fate of the Eschweilers, Innovation Campus, TIF districts, sewer repairs, even the Zoo Interchange project - none of these burning issues press the buttons of local elected officials quite like the chicken debate.

"I think we should just give it a shot," Alderman Bobby Pantuso said. "There's a few people that are going to do this (own chickens). It's going to be the butt of many jokes, I think. I don't see a lot of the things that could go wrong going wrong - but they could, they could. … This could be the chickapocalypse! I mean it really could, from what I'm hearing. It's a year. Let's give it a shot tonight."

Pantuso's sentiments were prevalent, and the ordinance for a one-year trial of chickens in the city passed by an 11 to 5 vote, with council members Jim Moldenhauer, Cheryl Berdan, Don Birschel, Kathleen Causier, and John Dubinski voting no.

The ordinance outlines several requirements, including the following:

Chickens shall be licensed;

Adjoining property owners shall consent in writing;

Site plan shall be approved by the development director or designee;

Chickens shall be properly fed and watered;

Chickens "shall be provided with a sanitary and adequately sized covered enclosure or coop" and shall be kept there, or in a fenced enclosure, at all times;

Chicken coops and yards together shall be large enough to provide at least 16 square feet of space per chicken; and

No enclosure or coop shall be located closer than 25 feet of any residential dwelling on any other lot.

Under the plan, which permits a maximum of four hens, roosters are not allowed, eggs may not be sold and chickens may not be slaughtered.

Selling points

The facts that the ordinance sunsets in a year and that neighbors must give consent were the selling points for many supporters.

"The big sticker for me here was the permission from the surrounding neighbors … you have to get a lot of people to sign off on this," Alderman Joel Tilleson said.

"I had initial concerns … we all have health concerns, we all have cost concerns, but what we're doing tonight is we're approving a one-year trial," Alderman Dennis McBride said. "If it works, it'll work. If it doesn't work, we'll know that as well, we'll come back in a year and we'll take care of business one way or another."

McBride rattled off a list of cities that allow chickens, including Los Angeles, Madison, New York City, Seattle, San Antonio, Honolulu, St. Louis, San Jose, Baltimore, San Francisco and others.

"So far to date the evidence that I've been provided with tells me that it's not a problem," he said.

There are health risks with any animal, said Alderman Greg Walz-Chojnacki.

"I think it's fair to say that biting and barking dogs represent a greater health risk, a risk to our peace and safety, than chickens would," he said. The difference is, "We tolerate dogs and cats, and I think that's largely because we're accustomed to them."

A great virtue of the ordinance, Walz-Chojnacki said, "is that it imposes absolutely nothing on any citizen. If people don't want them for a neighbor, they don't have to have them."

The same can't be said of dogs, he said.

Objections to the ordinance

On the flip side, the objections were various. Alderman John Dubinski said that as a resident whose "backyard is the parkway," he experiences an abundance of wildlife, including deer.

"Most recently we've had coyotes, packs of coyotes," he said.

Chickens in the yard may attract coyotes, as they might attract birds of prey such as red-tailed hawks and owls. And Dubinski noted recent appearances of rats.

"We've had drought for two years now, and it's drawing rats into our community," he said.

Dubsinki said that in campaigning door to door in his district, he asked people, "Chickens or no chickens?" and the answer almost invariably was against chickens.

To the common argument that caring for chickens and collecting their eggs may bring children an education in food sources, Dubinski said a visit to the zoo would provide the same lesson.

Alderman Jim Moldenhauer said he had spoken to farmers, who view urban chickens as a fad. They also said "a lot of people aren't cognizant of the work involved in maintaining the chickens."

An acquaintance in St. Paul has chickens down the street from him, though not next door, Moldenhauer said.

"He is negative to the chickens," he said. "They're very noisy, smelly. I don't think this is right for Wauwatosa."

Cheryl Berdan related her own childhood experience with chickens. Visiting a relative's farm to ride the horses, she would always have to tend the chickens in return.

"I hated going in there," she said. She was pecked trying to collect eggs and saw chickens eating each others' eggs.

"Just because they're popular," she said, referring to McBride's list of cities, "is not a reason to have them."

Some supporters have argued that allowing chickens would be another way to distinguish Wauwatosa, but Birschel said, "I don't want us to be known as the city of chickens. I want us to be known as the city of homes."

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