Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Our View - Hold off on chicken rules until next year

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Sept. 11, 2009.

Two Iowa City staff members are presenting a mixed recommendation to the Iowa City Council concerning whether in-town property owners should be allowed to raise chickens in their backyards. The council will discuss the matter Monday.

Both Douglas Boothroy, director of housing and inspections services, and Misha Goodman, director of animal services, agree on an extensive list of minimum standards they think should be put in place if the council does decide to allow backyard chickens. In addition to detailed instructions about how the birds should be housed, the list includes:

• Requiring residents to apply for an annual permit that will include an inspection,

• Limiting backyard chickens only to properties whose primary use is single-family dwelling,

• Requiring residents to notify all abutting property owners before a permit is issued and

• Limiting the number of birds per property to four hens, no roosters.

But Boothroy and Goodman disagree on whether the city should allow chickens in residential areas at all. Goodman said the chickens wouldn't present any more difficult problems for her staff than other animals do. She said her staff would handle problems with owners who mistreat or abandon their chickens just as they handle similar situations with the problem owners of dogs, cats, iguanas, etc.

"To me, there has to be a good reason for this not to happen," Goodman said. "We have a lot of citizens requesting the ability to keep chickens in their backyards. It's not something that is harmful in most ways. So I don't see a reason not to do it."

But Goodman also said she knows whenever the city council implements a rule, someone, somewhere, violates it. So she is asking the council to wait to make any changes in the current policy until at least next year. Because animal control is still dealing with the aftermath of last year's flood, she is concerned about giving any additional responsibility to her officers right now.

Boothroy goes even further and recommends the council not approve backyard chickens at all because his department doesn't have the staff to deal with the complaints. He said he also worries that, because it's been decades since chickens were allowed in city residential areas, backyard chickens would spark additional feuds between neighbors who differ in their perceptions of whether chickens are a threat or a benefit to the quality of their lives and to the value of their property.

We side with Goodman in this debate. The rules she and Boothroy have suggested would provide clear guidelines that owners can understand and that city staff can enforce. And because the permits would have to be approved annually, chicken owners -- and their neighbors -- will have ample opportunities to re-evaluate whether the birds are as beneficial as once thought.

We hope the council sees fit to approve the restrictions ironed out by Goodman and Boothroy and to have Iowa City join the growing list of cities that are allowing residents to raise a limited numbers of chickens in their backyards.

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