After much debate, the Baxter City Council had a split vote 3-2 Tuesday, July 21, in favor of permitting urban chickens in R1 residential properties.

The ordinance comes with an array of stipulations that pertain to the number of chickens allowed, how and where they’re allowed to be housed, sanitation requirements, inspections by city staffers, as well as neighbor approval for adjacent properties in order for the permit to be approved.

This has been much in the vein of the discussion for the city, where city staffers recommended against the ordinance and the proposal narrowly passed the Planning and Zoning Committee by a vote of 3-2 as well. Council members Zach Tabatt, Todd Holman and Connie Lyscio voted in favor, while Mayor Darrel Olson and council member Mark Cross voted against the ordinance.

Community Development Director Josh Doty noted Baxer residents are currently allowed to have chickens on their properties, but this is only for two types of rural districts, where up to a limit of four chickens can be housed on properties with a setback of 300 square feet or more, and all of this is ultimately subject to a permit the property owner must apply.

“That approval process is available to those property owners in Baxter within those zones, provided they can meet a 300 foot setback, so you're generally talking about much larger properties,” Doty said. “This ordinance that's been drafted here this evening allows chickens in more of an urban lot scenario, which would apply to many more lots within the city of Baxter.”

Doty said city staffers contacted nine other cities of comparable size and took into account the history of rural chickens in Baxter. In total, six of these cities also limited chickens to rural properties and did not allow urban chickens, Doty said, while three did allow urban chickens.

As part of the ordinance, property owners in R1 residential zones would have to have a minimum of 30,000 square feet, only in back yards, as well as a 25 foot setback from the road — as well as another setback in the case of corner lots — as well as requirements for a chicken coop, a chicken run, and other animal welfare requirements if residents wish to house up to four hens, not roosters, on their in-town property. Permits would only be approved if adjacent property owners signed off on the agreement.

Coops and runs would be required to have proper screening, with the exception of natural vegetation, though this would have to be a staff-approved barrier that’s “thicker and woodier,” as Doty put it. Scent and sanitation conditions for the chickens would also be included. Animals can’t be bred in this ordinance, Doty said, and the sale of eggs would be prohibited, though gifting eggs aren’t subject to this ordinance. The ordinance would also prohibit the use of chicken manure in compost bins. Unlike some other cities, Doty said, which would incorporate the number of chickens into a ratio of total animals allowed on the property, the allotment of four chickens allowed would be a separate metric. Chickens would still not be allowed on R2 and R3 residential properties.

Permit-holders would be subject to city inspections, Doty said, while violators of city statutes would be subject to a loss of these permits. Based on enforcement concerns, Doty said city staff initially recommended the council should reject this ordinance.

Council discussion

The issue came before the city earlier this year. In May, 9-year-old Kennedy McCafferty brought a petition to the council to consider amending the city code to allow residents to keep chickens in their neighborhoods. Meeting with the council via a Zoom session, young Kennedy presented her petition with signatures gathered, most via the internet during the spring as people were quarantining at home.

“When I first started the petition my mom was helping me decide what to do. So far we have 1,457 have signed in all and 165 people from Baxter,” Kennedy said at the time.

The petition included signatories from Baxter and Brainerd along with area cities like Breezy Point, as well as those farther afield in Minneapolis, Denver, New York and internationally from Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg, France, Norway, Turkey, Uruguay, Greece, Poland, India and the United Kingdom, among others.

Olson noted the ordinance first came into being through a petition submitted to the council by some Baxter residents, but the hope was the issue could be explored by in-person council meetings and public hearings hosted at Baxter City Hall. At this time, that isn’t possible, he added, which has caused great trepidation among council members who may want to hear more community input after the issue narrowly passed the Planning and Zoning Commission on a split 3-2 vote and rigorous debate.

Tabatt and Lyscio separately praised the diligence that community residents and city staffers went into instigating, then crafting the proposed ordinance.

“I was pretty strongly opposed to the concept of chickens inside of any city,” Tabatt said.“But having considered that petition, all the comments I've seen, the context of everything that's going on in 2020 with allowing people to be a little bit more self sufficient … I just think that this is about as good as we can do for the time being right now.”

Holman said he was happy with how the ordinance was written, but expressed concern for provisions that state an adjacent neighbor has to sign off on any permit to allow chickens on the applicant’s property. He said he was in favor of the good-will and respect to others this engenders, but also noted some neighbors are unwilling to work proactively or come to an understanding, regardless of the ordinance or the character of the applicant, which could complicate the approval process going forward.

“My feeling would be that your ordinance stands on its own,” Holman said. “That people should be able to proceed with that permit independent of personality, because there are no sideboards. It’s really subjective what a neighbor can say. … What concerns me is that we're doing an ordinance, putting a legislative action into the hands of a really arbitrary capricious scenario.”

Cross said he had the opposite opinion, that he was uncomfortable not having those provisions, with the fear it could cut out and exclude some property owners from the process who would be affected by the presence of chickens.

Olson said his concern was the process, as a whole, was “coming together too fast” and without the usual input and oversight from the community. While the petition may have conveyed an overwhelming approval for an ordinance that allows urban chickens, he noted, once the Dispatch published articles detailing the issue, there was a flood of comments, emails and voicemails that indicated an overwhelming rejection of the ordinance.

“My concern is that we’re not getting enough input from both sides,” Olson said. “If you have a petition signed by 100 people from Baxter and some of those are husbands and wives representing the same property, so you have 60 people out of 600, well, what does that really tell you? We need to be careful here.”

Olson also expressed concerns that this would be a slippery-slope issue, in which the city isn’t setting a hard line that says non-urban pets — the likes of dogs or cats — may include not only chickens, but the likes of potbelly pigs and other animals the city would have to contend with once other residents submit petitions.

“How do we stop with chickens?” said Olson, who also warned there’s an element of peer pressure where people may sign permits for neighbors they like and have a relationship with, even if they don’t want chickens next door themselves. Then, later: “I feel charged to maintain those standards that have been done before me.”

GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at gabe.lagarde@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch.