[Foodcouncil] Milwaukee Considering Legalizing Backyard Chickens!

JOHN EDWARD PECK jepeck at wisc.edu
Mon Apr 27 18:04:42 CDT 2009


City dwellers in Madison can keep backyard egg layers, but local residents do it on the sly and lobby lawmakers
By Karen Herzog 
MIlwaukee Journal Sentinel,  Apr. 21, 2009
http://www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/43400552.html#

Chickens soon could be roosting in a backyard near you.

Fresh eggs are the latest rage hatched by urban local food enthusiasts who say nothing beats an egg with a deep golden yolk, still warm from the henhouse.

Several cities across the country - including Madison, Green Bay and Chicago - allow backyard chickens. Milwaukee and Shorewood are pecking away at the concept because a few residents have asked permission. Discussions have barely scratched the surface, though, because the urban chicken movement is controversial.

For those curious about what it's like to have chickens as next-door neighbors, a documentary about Madison's evolution to a legal home for egg-laying hens will enjoy a free showing Wednesday night at Lakefront Brewery Palm Gardens. Madison legalized chickens five years ago.

A "chicken underground," as it is called, has existed for years in Milwaukee and suburbs where some residents keep hens quietly. (Only roosters crow.) Caledonia recently rejected a proposed ordinance to allow chickens, and the Racine County village evicted one family's hens earlier this month.

"It's strange looking in the backyard, and not seeing the 'girls' there," said Tracy Bernhardt, who was forced to send her seven hens packing to a Union Grove hobby farm.

"We miss them a lot," Bernhardt said this week. "If we ever move to a different city, we'll make sure it's a place where chickens are allowed."

Bernhardt said misconceptions are to blame for the failure of the proposed ordinance.

"The common complaints you hear, like they attract predators, or they smell, simply aren't true," she said. "We cleaned out our coop and composted the manure as fertilizer for our garden.

"You'd hear an occasional excited cluck when they laid an egg, but the crows are louder than the chickens ever were."

Bernhardt purchased her hens as chicks through the Web site www.mypetchicken.com and picked them up at the post office when they were 2 days old. Together, the hens produced an average of four or five eggs a day.

In Shorewood, a committee of the Village Board is gathering information from communities that have legalized chickens. Some board members have indicated they might consider a pilot project involving a few residents.

Shorewood Village Trustee Jeff Hanewall, 44, said he grew up in Wauwatosa at a time when people kept "goofy pets" in their backyards and no one cared. Shorewood is more densely populated than Wauwatosa, noted Hanewall, who said he is on the fence about the issue.

"Things aren't like they used to be, when you knew everyone on your block," he said. "Shorewood is a comfortable community, and I don't want to create potential conflict among neighbors."

The issue tentatively is scheduled to be revisited by Shorewood's Judiciary, Personnel and Licensing Committee on May 18. If the committee decides to draft a proposed ordinance, public hearings would be scheduled.

"People in Shorewood like to consider themselves progressive," Trustee Sean Cummings said at a recent committee meeting. But he still wants more information on health issues, as well as any potential negative impact on property values.

"We have our hands full with getting people to keep their homes painted, and picking up their garbage," Cummings said. "If you have a rogue chicken keeper, how do you get them to clean up their act?"

Disposal of chicken waste, the fate of chickens that become too old to lay eggs, and whether chicken feed on the ground attracts pests are all issues that need to be addressed, Cynthia Tomasello, Shorewood's director of public health, said in a memo to the trustees.

"While I understand individuals' desire to raise their own food, the keeping of farm animals in an urban environment is inappropriate where there is limited space and would impact the quality of life of their neighbors," Tomasello concluded.

A chicken ordinance for Milwaukee has yet to be formally discussed.

But Ald. Nik Kovac campaigned for urban agriculture, including chickens, when he ran for Common Council a year ago. He's working to build support for the idea.

"In general, it's a great idea," said Kovac, who tends a backyard vegetable garden.

Madison has not had major problems with resident chickens since its ordinance was passed in 2004, said Patrick Comfert, the city's animal services lead worker.

"We do get complaints occasionally relating to crowing roosters, and ethnic religious ceremonies that involve butchering a chicken," he said.

Roosters are illegal in Madison and other cities that allow chickens. Butchering chickens also is illegal.

Madison allows up to four hens, which must be confined in a coop.

Madison residents must pay $10 for an annual chicken permit issued by the city treasurer. Coops must be at least 25 feet from neighboring residences.

So far this year, 62 permits have been issued by the city, according to the treasurer's office.

"What I've noticed is it seems to have opened up neighborhoods," said Comfert. "It's made people come off their porches and be more neighborly. A lot of people share eggs with their neighbors."

Pam Karstens, who keeps chickens on Madison's near east side, has taught a "City Chickens 101" class for Mad City Chickens, the Madison group of chicken owners that began as a "chicken underground."

In addition to providing eggs, chickens eat bugs and weeds, and they happily devour food scraps such as wilted lettuce, Karstens said. And their manure can be composted into garden fertilizer.

But the best part of having chickens in cities is the connections they foster, she said.

"It's the coming together of people, and the different conversations chickens spark," Karstens said.

"I can sit out back and drink coffee and watch them for hours - the pecking order and how they interact with each other. It's a form of entertainment that doesn't require you to plug something into an outlet."

And the eggs especially come in handy during tax season, Karstens said.

"I give my neighbor six months of eggs to do my taxes."


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