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April 10, 2012

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Staff Writer

The lengthy and often passionate urban chicken debate that began last fall ended Monday, when Delaware City Council unanimously approved the new law clarifying how agricultural society students may raise barnyard animals.

The vote followed a public discussion two weeks ago, when city staff heard how the chicken-focused proposal could inadvertently restrict how agriculture students raise other animals.

Two amendments were then composed with the assistance of Laryssa Hook, 4-H and youth development educator at Delaware County’s Ohio State University Extension Office.

Council unanimously approved the first, which allows barnyard animals to be kept for as long as official agricultural societies deem appropriate. City staff had initially proposed limiting the projects to seven months, which would have “greatly restricted” how students could raise rabbits, Hook said.

The second amendment raised the maximum number of animals from five to six, and allowed additional newborn rabbits to be kept for a 90-day period to comply with 4-H procedures. Council also agreed to allow no more than four accessory structures in which to keep the animals.

That amendment was approved in a 5-2 vote with council members Chris Jones and Lisa Keller dissenting. They said the size, in addition to the number, of the structures should have been limited.

In all, the new ordinance continues to prevent the general public in residential areas from keeping chickens and other livestock in their yards.

Those allowed to keep the animals include those participating under the auspices of a Junior Fair or equivalent defined by the Delaware County Agricultural Society, the Ohio County Agricultural Society, the State Fair or Independent Agricultural Society.

Animals specifically permitted include chickens, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs and birds. They must be housed completely within a structure no less than 15 feet away from any property line, unless otherwise approved by abutting property owners.

The structures used to house these outdoor animals must be removed from the yard after the duration of the project, or converted to an accessory structure such as a tool shed.

Roosters, slaughtering animals on the property or selling eggs or animals is not allowed.

These regulations are to be enforced by city staff, who may revoke any issued temporary use permit. Upon revocation, the property must return to its state prior to housing the animals.

These regulations do not apply to animals kept inside the house, such as cats and dogs.

Overall, Hook said she was pleased with the results.

“It’s a good compromise,” she said.

Some families will have to “scale back” to comply with the new legislation, Hook said, but most will not be impacted.

“For most of our families, they’ll be able to work within this scope,” she said.

Council’s recent vote ends months of passionate debate, which addressed such topics as the meaning of the “Green Movement,” sanitary concerns, regulation enforcement, neighbors’ rights, histoplasmosis and 4-H projects.

“We know more about chickens than what we can imagine,” mayor Gary Milner said.

In the end, Hook said that the legislation process, like the 4-H agricultural projects themselves, was a good learning experience for the students.

“It showed the process of how citizenship works,” Hook said.

She said the discussions were also a lesson in being cognizant of your neighbor, and the legislation showed the council’s effort in respecting neighbors’ rights.

Initial discussions about chickens began when one resident asked the city to allow more than 4-H students to try raising backyard chickens. The resident was backed by Sustainable Delaware, a group devoted to promoting environmental education, but also received strong public push-back.

Reflecting on the entire issue, Milner cited a common philosophical statement: Perception is reality.

“The perception is this would impact so many people,” he said. “Overwhelmingly, people have begged, ‘Don’t let it happen.’”

He said he appreciated what Sustainable Delaware was trying to accomplish, but that “there might be other green initiatives that would be less impactful on neighbors.”

Or, as a Sustainable Delaware member said, the group may just need more time.

“When we started the initiative, to us, it seemed like a no-brainer,” said Tom Wolber, a Sustainable Delaware member who led the discussion about chickens.

He said that the group was “shocked, disappointed and surprised about the avalanche of resistance,” but concluded that “change is painful.”

“Sometimes it takes years, a whole new generation,” he said.