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Clucked up 

In the chicken-and-egg equation of city politics, bureaucratic paralysis comes before poultry farmers.

click to enlarge "Surely they can come up with a way to allow a few people to keep a hen or two in their backyard." - JUSTIN LEE
  • "Surely they can come up with a way to allow a few people to keep a hen or two in their backyard."
  • Justin Lee

Irene, queen of the north end, is blissfully unaware of the ruckus she is causing for her owner Fred Connors. As the Araucana hen rolls in the dirt outside her cedar chicken coop, platinum-haired Connors looks on, speckled eggs in hand.

"Just like people who raise pets enjoy tending to their pets, I enjoy tending to these animals," says Connors. "I see it as exactly the same type of practice. Except these animals produce food, whereas most house pets just produce poop."

The Halifax peninsula is not zoned for agricultural use, so raising chickens is a no- no. After his neighbour complained, Connors was served with a bylaw violation telling him to move his flock. Connors refuses.

While he has raised chickens for over a decade in rural Nova Scotia, Connors' seven hens and two ducks have only been roosting on Bloomfield Street since last year. He has become the de facto spokesperson for urban chicken farmers in Halifax, a position that puts him ill at ease.

"Everyone should have the right to have chickens in their backyard," says Connors, the owner of FRED. beauty food art. "I know a lot of people would rather me shut the fuck up because I seem to talk a lot about chickens, but I wish I didn't have to."

Connors attempts to turn the focus to other chicken enthusiasts. While he has heard of other coops near Fuller Terrace and Black Street, he does not know the owners.

A thorough tour of the neighbourhood reveals no signs of feathered residents---no clucking or the aroma of dung. Neighbours keep quiet on the subject and offer no help. To skirt the bylaw, Connors says chicken farmers raise the pets in their basements or hide them under porch stoops.

Other urban agriculture buffs are either unable or unwilling to "out" urban chicken farmers. A food expert at the Ecology Action Centre blames dwindling interest in urban chicken-keeping on the city's delay in handling the issue: "I am wondering if all the talk about the chicken bylaw and all of the concern over the past few years is scaring people off from keeping urban chickens," says Marla MacLeod.

John van Gurp, an administrator of the Halifax Chickens Facebook group, was quoted in The Coast's Green Guide saying there were 15 chicken coops on the peninsula. But he now says that number is inaccurate and could only think of two other chicken farmers in addition to Connors.

Van Gurp was planning to build a coop in his own Yukon Street backyard, but says it is not worth the hassle from the city. "I had my heart set on it," he says, with an air of defeat.

The uncertainty of how the city would enforce the animal bylaw also deterred van Gurp from starting a brood. "I feel like my rights are being infringed upon here by small-minded bureaucrats," says the west end homeowner. "It's been three-and-a-half years...surely to god they can come up with a way to allow a few people to keep a hen or two in their backyard."

The struggle for poultry-lovers started in January 2008 when Louise Hanavan was reprimanded by HRM for keeping three hens at her home on Edinburgh Street. Hanavan's experience sparked a protest; 1,000 Haligonians signed a petition in support of urban poultry. While Hanavan eventually gave away her hens to a farm in Hants County, interest in her case prompted a city planning study on the viability of urban chickens.

The report, presented to Peninsula Community Council earlier this year, recommended that land-use bylaws be changed to allow laying hens. That is where it gets complicated, says west end councillor Jennifer Watts. While the Peninsula Community Council can change the chicken bylaw, another citizens' group, a planning committee, recommended that the PCC also implement "trial periods" for bylaw changes, a power the PCC does not have.

The two issues---the chicken bylaw and the trial periods---have become conflated into a proposed chicken bylaw trial period, but the larger regional council would have to petition the province to change the Municipal Government Act and allow for an urban chicken pilot project. Last week, council declined to ask the province about trial periods, instead asking city staff to write a report, which should come back before council sometime in the fall.

"When that report comes back to council, if people are favourable and it makes sense we will then approach the province to do that," says Watts. "But by the time we do all that, the chicken thing will have evolved one way or the other."

Watts says naysayers should not be worried their city will be overrun by noisy hens that attract rats or spread disease. "I think that one of the fears is 'Everyone's going to have chickens and it's going to be out of control,'" she says. "Maybe there is just a small group of people who would want to do this for environmental's going to have minimal impact."

Watts says she is unwilling to discuss urban chickens at Halifax Regional Council, because it only affects the peninsula. She is unsure whether the issue will be addressed at Peninsula Community Council's meeting on September 13.

Hanavan says for the issue to be resolved, councillors need to be more progressive.

"One thing that councillors are acutely aware of, politically, is that they have been ridiculed in the past...on the cat bylaw and on animal bylaws," says Hanavan. "There is a certain perception on the part of councillors that people will think they are silly for spending time talking about it at all."

Connors says his lawyer is collaborating with city prosecutors, but they are waiting for council to take a position on the issue before they pursue the issue in court. Connors has not been fined the minimum $36,500 for violating the land-use bylaw over the year.

"I am basically in remission," says Connors, pausing to consider the metaphor. "If this whole issue is like cancer, I am currently in remission and one day my cancer may come back."

Gwyneth Dunsford is a freelance writer based in Halifax. This is her first cover story for The Coast.

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