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Legislation on chicken ownership in Aberdeen moves toward vote, some details still need ironing out

Aberdeen residents could know as soon as the end of the month whether they can keep flocks of hens in their backyards.

Legislation that would amend the city’s development code to allow residents to own up to six hens — no roosters — per half-acre of land, will be considered, and possibly voted on, at the city council’s next meeting. The ordinance would required hens be kept in a fenced location and have a coop at least 6 feet away from other structures and the side and rear property lines of the lot.

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Still, a selection of amendments floated by Councilman Adam Hiob seeks to clarify elements of the bill before a vote is taken.

Hiob’s amendments, heard at Monday’s Aberdeen City Council meeting, propose the coops provide at least 3 square feet of space per chicken, require a building permit if hen houses are more than 18 square feet and impose a permit system to keep track of flocks within the city’s limits.

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Hiob voted against the ordinance’s introduction in June, citing health, perception and civic concerns with allowing the birds back in town. His amendment regulating the size of the coop, he said, also prevents a citizen from building a large structure and claiming it as a coop. Though he alluded to lingering concerns with allowing backyard flocks, he said the amendments closed loopholes and put the city “in a little bit better shape, administratively.”

“Right now, someone could build a 200 square-foot thing and claim it as their coop and not require anything,” Hiob said.

Mayor Patrick McGrady said the council could vote on the ordinance at the July 27 meeting, along with its proposed amendments. But if the legislation is substantially changed by the amendments, as he thought it was by the amendment requiring permitting, he felt it may be prudent to wait longer to vote.

“It was not the original intent of the sponsors of the legislation,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “By having someone monitoring chickens, it adds additional cost to the city.”

The council agreed that the ordinance relies on the common sense of city residents to not, say, put a coop in their front yard or build it out of scrap metal. Councilman Jason Kolligs said caring for chickens would require the same diligence as caring for a dog or other domestic pet.

“It is a common sense ordinance. The idea is that we are restoring a simple liberty to people who are seeking a simple joy in life,” Kolligs said. “If you do not take care of your dog properly, they are going to smell, they are going to affect you neighbors; it’s the same principle.”

Public comments for and against backyard flocks reiterated many of the same points made at the ordinance’s introduction. Chair of the planning commission Mark Schlottman said that inviting fowl back within city limits would be a “step backward” in terms of the city’s image. He also reiterated the planning commission’s near-unanimous vote against changing the development code to allow backyard chickens.

The planning commission is an advisory board; decisions on changes to the city’s development code falls to the city council.

Patricia Felts, a pro-poultry resident, said citizens have been pushing to own chickens for over two years. She stood by the reasoning she gave the council in past meetings for why citizens should be able to keep chickens. At the hearing where the ordinance was introduced, Felts and others said chickens are valuable for their eggs and companionship.

Councilman Tim Lindecamp, who also voted against the ordinance’s introduction, expressed worries about leaving some of the legislation’s provisions vague.

“It is a common sense ordinance, but we have a lot of citizens [who], I hate to say it, don’t have common sense,” he said. “My fear is that this will be great when it starts but what is it going to look like a year down the road, when they are not taken care of like they should be?” anticipating that some residents would stop caring for the hens.

Lindecamp also suggested adding guidelines on what materials can be used to build the coops. A coop made of scrap would be unsightly, he said.

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Kolligs reasoned that coops’ constructions would be a common sense issue for would-be chicken owners who value their yards and neighborhoods. Besides, he added, city residents can make art out of scrap metal and display it in their front yards currently.

McGrady said he would not vote for an amendment that required permitting because it would make more work for city hall and cost the city. Kolligs suggested the council move forward with the legislation and see its effects rather than preempt possible problems, though he said he also saw the merits of some of the amendments related to sizes of coops.

“If the calls are pouring in and there are people abusing loopholes and that sort of thing, fine, but right now we are getting lost in the minutia of what could possibly be taken advantage of,” he said.

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