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Ferndale residents want city to allow backyard chickens

By: Jeremy Selweski | Woodward Talk | Published May 17, 2011

FERNDALE — A small but passionate group of residents is lobbying city officials in hopes that they will decrease the restrictions placed on raising backyard chickens in Ferndale.

According to Derek Delacourt, community and economic development director for the city, Ferndale’s current ordinance does not directly prohibit residents from owning chickens, but it does make it unlawful to keep them within 150 feet of any neighboring home. That requirement makes it impossible for about 90 percent of Ferndale residents to legally house chickens in their yards, he said.

Resident Laura Mikulski has been leading the charge for an amendment to the city ordinance and recently organized a website, www.ferndalechickens.com, to help get other residents on board with the idea. She would like Ferndale to follow the guidelines of the Michigan State University Extension Poultry Research and Teaching Center, which recommend that chickens be kept at least 10 to 20 feet from surrounding homes.

“I’d like to … ensure that most every resident in Ferndale who is interested in owning a backyard flock could legally do so,” Mikulski wrote via email. “I’d also like to see Ferndale adopt ordinance language that would define proper keeping practices to ensure that we don’t develop nuisance issues.”

Mikulski, an avid organic gardener, believes that there are many benefits to keeping backyard hens. In addition to providing fresh, locally produced eggs, she said, hens help with pest control by consuming bugs and weeds in the yard, improve sustainability by eating grass clippings and food scraps that would otherwise end up in a landfill, and provide manure that can be used as fertilizer in the garden. She also feels that backyard chickens receive far better treatment than those in factory farms and can be used as an educational tool for local children.

City Councilwoman Melanie Piana said that since January, at least 10 Ferndale residents have contacted her about changing the city’s fowl ordinance.

“I’m generally in support of this idea,” she said. “Backyard chickens are one more way for our residents to take control of their food supply and produce locally grown, organic eggs for themselves and for the community.”

Resident Ido Meron came before the City Council at its May 9 meeting to provide some “food for thought” about backyard chickens. He tried to assuage any concerns that city officials might have about the animals creating excessive noise, putrid odors or unsanitary yards and bringing property values down as a result.

“Just like any other pets or animals, chickens need care,” Meron told the council. “Good maintenance practices help keep birds happy, healthy and odor-free. That also keeps the neighbors (from getting) upset about it. A chicken that is properly cared for is just as clean as a dog or any house bird. Laying hens can be kept in a yard so inconspicuously that it may not be apparent that chickens are even around.”

Mikulski agreed. “I’ve been to visit many of the coops that residents have in the city,” she wrote, “and you literally wouldn’t know the chickens are there unless you saw them. Things like vacuums, barking dogs, city traffic, lawnmowers and motorcycles all have far higher decibel levels than the average hen cluck.”

Recently, other local cities have taken steps to better accommodate backyard chickens. In December, the Madison Heights City Council voted to amend its fowl ordinance, allowing up to three domesticated hens per household. Only female chickens are allowed — no male chickens, or roosters — and a $20 license fee is required, as is proper shelter, care and control. The ordinance includes a two-year sunset clause, allowing the council to revisit the issue to decide if it wants to allow hens in the city beyond Jan. 1, 2013.

If Ferndale officials do move forward with changes to the city’s poultry policy, then Piana favors a common-sense approach that would protect the integrity of its neighborhoods.

“We just need to put some steps in place to mitigate the few negative factors that could come from this,” she said. “For the residents, it all really comes down to pet management, just like with dogs and cats.”

Delacourt noted that at this point, the issue has only generated preliminary discussions among city staff. He has not yet received any direction from the City Council about amending the existing ordinance, but he believes that it would be “perfectly plausible” to make changes that are agreeable to everyone.

“If there is an ordinance revision,” Delacourt said, “we would like to do it in a way that respects all the parties involved. We would want something that allows residents to keep and house chickens, but without creating a nuisance for their neighbors.”

Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski contributed to this report.