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Janesville City Council denies request for backyard chickens

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MARCIA A. NELESEN
February 23, 2010
— Council chambers were the scene of a “fowl” joke and a woman dressed as a rooster, but chicken proponents weren’t laughing as they left Monday’s meeting of the Janesville City Council.

Council members voted 5-2 against a proposed ordinance change allowing residents to keep a small number of hens in their backyards.


Resident Diane Van Horn said she was disappointed by the decision but predicted the issue wouldn’t go away.


“We’re not done yet,” she said, noting chicken advocates now are organized and have a leader in Allison Rollette.


The idea of raising chicken in cities is spreading, she said.


“It’s going to keep spreading. It’s more a matter of knowing where your food is coming from,” she said.


Another proponent, David Innis, said the proposal has at least started an education process in the city.


Councilmembers Russ Steeber, Frank Perrotto, Kathy Voskuil, Bill Truman and George Brunner voted against the ordinance that would have allowed residents to keep up to four hens. Tom McDonald and Yuri Rashkin favored the idea.


Council chambers were crowded, and one resident roosted in a rooster outfit. She left early, though.


“It’s hot in here,” she said of her costume as she left.


The woman said she had been hoping to make it to the end of the meeting so she could cluck sadly when the ordinance was voted down.


The ordinance would not have allowed roosters. Roosters aren’t needed for hens to lay eggs.


Rollettte asked residents at the meeting to raise their hands if they supported the ordinance. About half did so.


Eight residents spoke in favor of chickens in the city while five spoke against.


Those who spoke against chickens worried about vermin, smell, the spread of disease and the increase of predators. A landlord said the ordinance would makWe it harder to forbid tenants to have chickens.


One said code inspectors already are overworked.


But proponents said cities with chickens have few problems. Chickens cause problems if their owners are irresponsible, just like other pets do. Four chickens do not smell, nor do they cause noise or spread diseases, they said.


McDonald said landlords could prohibit chickens if they wanted.


Steeber said he is concerned about existing land covenants in subdivisions that might prohibit chickens and outbuildings such as coops.


“To be quite honest with you, this is a city,” Steeber said.


Most people he talked to were also against the ordinance. Janesville is not Madison or Fort Atkinson, where they allow chickens, Steeber said.


“We are Janesville, with our own values.”


Said Perrotto: “Personally, I would not want to see someone raising chickens next door to me. And … that is the opinion of the vast majority of people in Janesville.”


Perrotto noted the plan commission agreed and forwarded a negative recommendation with no discussion.


“They felt there was no need to discuss it further,” he said, adding that city staff also had a negative recommendation.


But McDonald said he was appalled the plan commission had no comments to go with its negative recommendation. He wondered if that meant there was no basis to their vote.


“What am I supposed to do with that?” he said. “Blindly follow the plan commission recommendation? I am glad we’re having more of a discussion tonight.”


McDonald said he personally would not raise chickens but doesn’t have a problem with those who want to as long as there are appropriate restrictions in place. He said the proposed ordinance needs work, and he suggested it be referred to the Sustainable Janesville Committee.


“This is something that is done in cities all over,” he said.


Brunner listed concerns with the ordinance, saying it did not address permit fees, chicken coop requirements, needed vaccinations or slaughtering. City staff prepared the ordinance.


With no requirements for setback from surrounding residences, “I’m concerned about pitting neighbor against neighbor,” he said


He also was concerned about the cost of raising chickens.


“I think some people have the idea you can just feed them table scraps,” Brunner said. “They’re liable to spend a few hundred dollars, and I’m concerned about that.”


Rashkin said any concerns aired Monday could be said about any other pet with irresponsible owners. Only a small number of people will want to raise chickens, he added.


Rashkin said he is “baffled” by how the council can talk about helping people on one hand but then stop them from being more sustainable.


“By voting down this proposed change, we’re really showing our lack of trust in residents,” he said. “Should there by licenses? Yes. Should there be guidelines? Yes. By the same token, I don’t think the city regulates dog houses.”


Voskuil, a council and plan commission member, defended the commission. She said members asked questions and referred to information from staff.


She said she suspects those who want chickens are interested in them more as a hobby. But some hobbies, such as archery, aren’t allowed in the city for obvious reasons, she said.


She suggested residents buy free-range eggs from farmers.


“I do not feel the appropriate place to have chickens is the city of Janesville,” she said.


Councilman President Truman said he fears chickens and their coops could dirty the city. Truman lives in the Fourth Ward, and he said he could be surrounded by 32 chickens if every tenant wanted them.


“I spent five years trying to clean up our neighborhood,” Truman said.



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