Ultimately, the matter of urban chickens is not a big deal in itself, but it does reflect poorly on Council's willingness to engage in evidence-based governance or support progressive urban revitalization.
By Ryan McGreal
Published December 13, 2012
Last night, Council voted down a proposal to ask staff to develop a pilot project to allow urban chickens in wards 1 and 2.
Ward 1 Councillor Brian McHattie pointed out that there are some risks to owning chickens, but a) those risks can be mitigated by responsible rules and b) the risks are no greater than many other activities that are already allowed.
Other municipalities already allow chickens and do not experience the concerns that opponents have raised. The public health report [PDF] concluded that the other cities that allow urban chickens "receive few complaints; less than five per year each," because most people don't keep chickens, and those who do "abide by the regulations in order to be good neighbours and avoid complaints."
Public Health has made it clear that with a reasonble by-law, chickens do not present any significant risks.
Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr expressed frustration with some of the more hyperbolic objections that were raised: the slippery slope that chickens will leat to goats and cows, or would attract rampagaing coyotes into the city.
Farr said, "I have had so much positive feedback and not one negative email or phone call to my recollection in the last year or in the last few weeks with respect to this issue."
He also confirmed through Tim McCabe, general manager of planning and economic development, that the original council vote to ask for a staff report included a request for information on licencing and cost recovery for by-law enforcement but that work has not been done. Farr asked how council can kill the motion when it has not yet received all the information it has requested.
Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla supported the initiative. "It's more than just having chickens. It's about your carbon footprint, eating local, it's really about being progressive. One thing we know for certain is that what's old is becoming new again, and that's probably a good thing, considering some of the environmental issues that we're dealing with."
Merulla pointed out that his grandmother kept chickens in Hamilton. "They were industrious and they were progressive and nothing went to waste, and they lived in a very healthy environment." Indeed, there are people who are keeping chickens in Hamilton right now. "All this catastrophe that we're going to be potentially subjected to if we allow this to happen is a fallacy, because it's already happening."
Merulla also noted that McHattie and Farr are not trying to impose chickens on the rest of the city. He believes Council should support individual councillors who want to try progressive ideas in their own wards. "We will learn from that experience."
Ward 9 Councillor Brad Clark also expressed his support for the pilot project, expressing surprise at how the decision turned out. "My expectation ... would have been that reasonable and pragmatic minds would have prevailed" at the planning meeting that rejected the pilot project.
He decried the "fear-mongering" among councillors who are making decisions based on anecdote rather than evidence. "I envisioned some movie... 'The Attack of the Urban Chickens in Hamilton' - and I don't think it's that dire."
A pilot project would have generated real evidence that council could use to make a final decision. Then staff could come back with a report on what issues emerged, what can be done to mitigate them and how popular the initiative was.
Instead of debating the philosophy of urban chickens, Clark said, "We should be debating the substance, which really is: can it be done? And if so, how would it be done safely?"
Of course, that is not what happened.
Ward 8 Councillor Terry Whitehead argued that a backyard chicken by-law would not just be dealing reactively with nuisance complaints, but would have to be proactive about regulating a "food product" through periodic public health inspections. "God forbid if you gave eggs to your neighbour...and there's a problem with the egg and they get sick. There's a liability."
He argued simultaneously that a chicken by-law would impose further demands on already overstretched city staff, and also that uptake would be so low that the city should not waste its time on a pilot.
Ward 11 Councillor Brenda Johnson brought forward the opinion of the agricultural and rural affairs committee that a disease outbreak from an urban chicken could "devastate an entire industry."
Likewise, Ward 14 Councillor Rob Pasuta counted Merulla's everything-old-is-new-again by saying, "I can remember when horses used to deliver milk and bread in Hamilton and they did their job on the street. They're not going to come back, I don't think." (Off-mic, Ward 3 Councillor Bernie Morelli mentioned police horses, which generated some laughter.) "...But times have changed."
Pasuta presented a nightmare of difficulty with chickens: devastated lawns, rodents and pests, and spent chickens abandoned at animal shelters. He presented as terrible barriers the prospect of building a coop and providing chickens with a balanced diet and water.
He suggested that children can watch videos if they want to learn about where food comes from. In terms of food, eggs are cheaper when you buy them from a farmer than when you grow the chickens yourself.
Incidentally, early this year, a 12-year-old living in Dundas wrote an article for RTH about her chicken coop. "Chickens are one of the most easy pets to take care of. ... Chickens are smart and social birds; they greet you in the morning and are excited to see you at the gate. Chickens can be taught to be held without scratching and can come when called. They put themselves to bed at night so all you have to do is close the door."
Presumably, things get more challenging when there are 20,000 chickens than when there are two. Needless to say, a by-law respecting backyard chickens would lean more to the latter scale than to the former.
Ward 12 Councillor Lloyd Ferguson focused on the risks identified in the public health report, warning that roosters "A lot of people, I'm sure, will want to have fertilized eggs, so they'll get a rooster. And those guys always get frisky at 4 AM and they make a loud racket and they're out looking for mother hen."
He ran through the risks listed in the report:
- problems with the number, age, and sex of chickens (how many to keep, abandonment of old chickens, and whether to include chicks or roosters);
- food safety issues (egg safety, unlawful sale or distribution, potential for disease transmission);
- chicken slaughter (illegal slaughter or lack of local chicken slaughterhouse locations);
- chicken (hen) care and treatment (potential for disease transmission from sick hens);
- chicken coop and design versus free range (risk of pests and predators and disease transmission); and,
- chicken waste (i.e. methods of disposal, odours and how to not affect groundwater).
But he somehow managed to ignore that the report also recommends effective mitigation strategies for all these risks:
- no sale or distribution of eggs to others outside of the household in order to comply with relevant Provincial/Federal legislation and to reduce the potential for food borne illnesses and other disease transmission;
- limit the number of chickens to three to four per single family dwelling;
- prohibit the keeping of roosters or any other poultry except chickens (hens);
- prohibit chicks under four months of age;
- the chicken coop shall be located to reduce noise and odour complaints and the risk of disease transmission. Distances are recommended to be at least 3 metres from any side lot line and at least 6 metres from any rear lot line or dwelling;
- hen coops shall be maintained in a clean condition and coop shall be kept free from obnoxious odours, substances and vermin;
- chicken coops and runs shall be located only in the rear and side yards and must fully enclose the chickens to prevent them from escaping;
- prohibit owners from allowing chickens to be at large (outside the coop, chicken run, or off the property);
- chickens' food supply must be protected against vermin;
- manure disposal should occur through municipal waste disposal unless a suitable method of composting is available;
- no home slaughter of hens; only at licensed slaughterhouses;
- any naturally deceased hen shall be disposed of at a livestock disposal facility or through the services of a veterinarian within 24 hrs of death; and,
- a permit/registry be required for all coops for the purpose of quick tracking should the need arise to contact owners.
Mayor Bob Bratina's contribution to the discussion was to relate an anecdote about a childhood neighbour complaining about a chicken going into his yard. "The reason civilization advanced in regard to this is because there were large nuisance and health issues that were created and it just didn't work in cities."
Farr spoke again after the objections, noting that the by-law would address all the concerns that were raised, which were exactly the same as the concerns that were raised before staff prepared a public health report to address them.
The question is: why did council bother asking public health staff to prepare a report on the risks and mitigation strategies of urban chickens if they had no intention of taking that data into consideration when deciding whether to supporr it?
If the report had come back indicating that there were significant risks that could not be adequately managed with a reasonable by-law, that's one thing. But staff were clear: backyard chickens are no more more dangerous than cats, dogs and other pets, and they entail no risks that cannot be addressed with some straightforward rules.
Never mind: Council voted to uphold the planning committee decision anyway.
The motion to kill the chicken bylaw was carried by Mayor Bob Bratina, Ward 3 Councillor Bernie Morelli, Ward 5 Councillor Chad Collins, Ward 7 Councillor Scott Duvall, Ward 8 Councillor Terry Whitehead, Ward 10 Councillor Maria Pearson, Ward 11 Councillor Brenda Johnson, Ward 12 Councillor Lloyd Ferguson, and Ward 15 Councillor Judi Partridge.
On the other side were Ward 1 Councillor Brian McHattie, Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr, Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla, Ward 9 Councillor Brad Clark, Ward 13 Councillor Russ Powers and Ward 14 Councillor Rob Pasuta.
If council cannot even bring themselves to take a small, calculated risk on a small urban initiative with almost zero downside, how can they ever muster up the courage and principle to support the big stuff Hamilton needs to do to shift its postwar course of endless suburban sprawl and urban decline?
Ultimately, the matter of urban chickens is not a big deal in itself, but it does reflect poorly on Council's willingness to engage in evidence-based governance. It also bodes poorly for Council's willingness to make decisions that support progressive urban revitalization.
The Council of 2001 was willing to take a leap of faith and convert James and John Streets to two-way traffic, despite overwrought warnings that chaos would ensue.
Today, over ten years later, we already have proof that the hyperbolic warnings never materialized but Council paradoxically seems more willing than ever to bow under anti-urban ideology and fear-mongering.
When the two-way study group for Cannon and Queen streets comes back with a detailed grassroots assessment, will Council take it seriously? Or will they remain ensconced in their narrow preconceptions?
How can they ever bring themselves to commit to light rail transit, a much bigger, more expensive and ultimately far more transformative project that will require deep comprehension of the intersection between land use and transportation but will require Council to make a decision based on evidence rather than inclination?
Yet contrast the alacrity with which the Council of late 2010 - substantially the same as the Council of today - voted to approve half a billion dollars to service 4,000 acres of new sprawl development in Mount Hope on little more than wishful thinking about low-density logistics and warehousing that may or may not materialize.
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