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Wauwatosa struts closer to becoming a chicken city

Jan. 9, 2013

Chickens took a step forward in the pecking order Tuesday night.

The city's Community Development Committee, in a 6-2 vote, approved a proposed ordinance that would allow residents to keep hens under a number of conditions. The panel's recommendation moves to issue forward to the Common Council before it returns to the committee, and then back to council, under rules governing ordinance changes.

"I think we'll find this to be a completely benign thing," said Alderman Greg Walz-Chojnacki.

The proposed ordinance, modeled on the city of Milwaukee's ordinance enacted a year ago, requires residents to get signed approval from immediate neighbors to have the chickens; outlaws roosters; sets a maximum of four hens per household; forbids the selling of eggs (though they may be given away); and sets minimum cage and yard requirements of 16 square feet per bird, among other things.

Assistant City Attorney Eileen Miller-Carter said she conformed the licensing requirements to dog and cat licensing, meaning the hens must be licensed individually - they won't be required to wear tags - and enforcement of chicken-keeping standards will be driven by complaints, not city inspection.

Milwaukee's chicken coup

Milwaukee Alderman Nik Kovac, the lead sponsor of the Milwaukee chicken ordinance, appeared at the Tosa meeting and said his city's experience has been nearly trouble free.

The Milwaukee ordinance was "done somewhat with the idea of sustainability in mind, and local food production, but really primarily as an amenity," he said.

He said the proposal in Milwaukee met stiff resistance at first among city leaders and among citizens, with concerns boiling down to three: "noise, poop, and disease."

"All three are legitimate, I'll say this, though - noise, poop and disease - all three are more concerning when it comes to the pets we take for granted. You know, dogs. The noise, poop and disease issues from dogs are actually greater, but they're culturally accepted so it's not as big of a deal."

The neighbor-approval requirement was the key to its passage, Kovac said. Though the one-year trial period was barely approved, council support actually grew, he said, so that the vote to extend it permanently was 13-1.

Only 14 permits were taken in Milwaukee, he said, and no complaints were attributed to them.

Local clucking on issues

Some elements of the Tosa ordinance drew debate.

Resident Bill Watson said there was a different between keeping chickens and keeping dogs and cats.

"They're a flocking animal. Chickens, when they roost at night, huddle together. They use each other's body heat for warmth and comfort, so in a way, thinking of them as individual chickens, and individual behavior in individual spaces … doesn't really match behaviorally how they function," he said.

He said it made more sense to license a group of four, say, as a unit, rather than license each independently.

Miller-Carter said that the individual licensing would allow the city, at least during the trial year, to track patterns of chicken deaths, disease and other concerns.

Clay Ecklund objected to the neighbor-approval requirement. He said he could buy a car, a loud dog or anything else without his neighbors' approval - many things more obtrusive than a chicken.

"If you do this for chickens, you should carry it over to dogs," he said.

Pecking at passage

Alderman Bobby Pantuso, in moving the proposal, said that without neighbor permission, he didn't think the ordinance would pass.

"If you don't want chickens in your neck of the woods, you're not going to have them, and I think that's important," he said.

If the experiment succeeds and continues for years, the approval requirement could be reconsidered, he said.

Council member Cheryl Berdan and Jim Moldenhauer both strongly objected to the plan, citing the possibility of disease and vermin.

Berdan was also concerned that some owners will tire of caring for chickens when the novelty wears off.

Her online research found chicken-keeping often referred to as "a craze, a fad or a hobby," she said. "I've seen it likened on these forums to the pot-bellied pig craze of the 1980s, which did not turn out very well for the pigs, as many of them became bigger or unmanageable" and had to be gotten rid of.

"To me, there's too many downsides to it," she said.

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