Urban Chickens

A number of cities in Iowa now allow urban chickens in residential areas and more are considering such policies. Proponents point to the health benefits of eating fresh eggs while being more environmentally friendly. Opponents voice concerns about potential health risks and increased noise and smell. While it is clear that the concept of urban or backyard chickens has spread across Iowa and the Midwest, there is not much consensus on the specific policies that a city council should adopt. As one might expect with a unique land use allowance, cities approach this in different ways, and that is reflected in their policies. There are, however, several common themes that are contained in most policies that regulate the type and number of chickens allowed, the permitting and zoning policies, the coop or pen requirements, and the inspection process. Within each aspect are numerous policy considerations that a city council will have to wade through.

Urban Chickens Defined

Most policies that allow urban chickens state that the chickens must be a domestic chicken. In addition, to keep the noise down most cities do not allow roosters. It is also wise to limit the number of chickens allowed on one property, with many cities allowing no more than four to six as a safeguard against overcrowding and potential nuisances.

Permitting and Zoning

One of the first questions a city council will have to answer is whether to treat this as a permitting or zoning issue (or both). Most cities will find it best to only allow urban chickens in residential areas and usually only in the backyards of single family homes to ensure neighbors are minimally affected and there is no overcrowding. Depending on a city’s current code of ordinances, this might need to be addressed through zoning.
Some cities have found it beneficial to require residents wishing to have urban chickens to apply for a permit from the city. This allows the city to see the resident’s plan for his or her urban chickens and whether it meets the city’s requirements. If the plan passes muster the city can grant a license and keep the permit on file for future inspection. As with any permit the city may want to set an appropriate fee that covers the administrative costs involved in managing the program.

Neighbor Notification and Consent

One of the more contentious elements of urban chickens is the impact on adjacent property owners. From safety and noise concerns to just simple dislike of animals next door, some residents might not be enthusiastic for an urban chicken policy. To address this issue, the city council will need to include a provision about informing neighbors and possibly getting consent. Some cities require applicants to provide notice to the residents of all immediately adjacent dwellings. Others will have their policy go a bit further by requiring applicants to get written consent from the owner of each adjacent property.

Coops and Pens

The majority of urban chicken policies do not allow the birds to roam free and require owners to keep their chickens in a coop or pen overnight. As such, it is important for coops and pens to be constructed in a manner that keeps the chickens inside while also providing them safe and healthy living conditions. The enclosure requirements should address sanitary concerns with measures to keep the area clean, odor-free and well-drained to prevent standing water. Addressing the management of waste and manure is necessary to prevent unhealthy conditions and noxious odors. It is also wise to require coops or pens to have adequate light and ventilation while constructed to prevent rodents and predators from gaining access.

The location of the coop or pen is another important element as the city council will need to determine an appropriate amount of distance from the owner’s home as well as the nearest adjacent property. Requiring coops and pens to be located in the back or rear yard is common to many policies.

City Inspections

Given the public safety and health concerns with urban chickens, a city will likely want to be able to conduct inspections. On the front end, this could mean requiring an applicant to submit plans that show the location and design of their coop and pen, the materials it will be constructed with and how the owner will maintain and clean the enclosure. The city can also set up an ongoing inspection system that allows city officials to visit coops and pens to ensure they continue to meet city code. It may also be necessary to include a provision that allows city inspectors to investigate complaints.

Additional Considerations

Along with ironing out the fundamentals of its urban chicken policy, a city council will need to consider a prohibition of slaughtering chickens as that could pose another health risk. Many policies also ban the selling of eggs and chickens and state that urban chickens are for non-commercial use only. The council will also want to consider how to handle violations of its urban chicken policy. Some policies use the city’s nuisance abatement provisions to cite owners in violation, while others establish different measures the city will take against violators. If a permit or license system is used, the city will likely want the ability to revoke a violator’s permit or license.

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