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Urban chickens: What the cluck? 

Bureaucrats don't like urban chickens, but peninsula councillors want to take another look.

Despite a staff report recommending no further action, the urban chicken debate in Halifax may just be getting underway.

Last year, three west end hens were effectively evicted by HRM's bylaw enforcement office after a complaint against them was lodged by an area neighbour. The eviction prompted protests from many would-be backyard chicken owners and supporters, with over 1,000 signatures on a petition prompting Peninsula Community Council to take notice and ask for staff input on the matter. After almost exactly a year, a report came back Monday with a recommendation to drop the issue due to a lack of any further backyard chicken incidents in HRM.

The four Peninsula councillors voted to table the report in order to seek out further community involvement on the issue before deciding what to do. "I had a fairly good number of people say they were disappointed with the recommendation," said councillor Jennifer Watts, who pitched the idea of further community consultation. Watts will now take the next month to consult community groups and individuals interested in backyard chickens.

"She wants to be deliberate about it; she wants to be inclusive about it, and that's really important," says Louise Hanavan, former owner of the three evicted west end hens. "That was something that was lacking originally."

"When I had chickens and got that letter from the city," recounts Hanavan, "there was a lack of community involvement in terms of what's OK in our neighbourhood and what's not OK in our neighbourhood. I think building that into whatever solution comes out is important."

Sam Austin, who attended the meeting, supports the idea of allowing backyard chickens in Halifax. "It's not as obscure as the report made it out to be," says Austin. "A lot of places in North America allow backyard chickens, including Chicago, New York, Vancouver...big cities! This isn't something going on in just rural municipalities."

HRM's staff report mentions three Canadian cities that currently allow backyard chickens: Victoria, Vancouver and Niagara Falls. The regulations cover number and type of birds (roosters are generally out of the question due to noise issues), size of yards and setbacks from neighbouring property lines.

According to John Van Gurp, an urban-poultry supporter who administered an online petition in support of the west end hens last year, banning backyard chickens is a matter of over-regulating HRM citizens. "I'm a taxpayer; I'm a property owner. I want to do this harmless hobby in my backyard, on my private property," says Van Gurp. "HRM shouldn't be able to come and shut it down on the basis of one complaint that might be based on groundless fears. We're not talking goats, horses and sheep here. It's a couple birds in your backyard. Give me a break."

The complaint against Louise Hanavan's chickens was reported to be concerning the potential for the chickens and their feed to attract rats to the area, something that would-be urban chicken raisers say is not a significant risk relative to other items that attract rats, such as wild-bird feed. But Hanavan was not informed of the nature of the complaint by the city.

"It wasn't until it came out in the media that I found out that there was a gentleman across the street and a few houses down that had called the city worried about rats being attracted by the chicken feed," say Hanavan. "If the media hadn't been involved, I wouldn't have known who or why."

Though the staff report advised no further action, it also recommended that any potential changes to the bylaws governing how HRM citizens use their backyards is considered by full regional council rather than local community council. HRM's bylaws are a mish-mash of local regulations dating from pre-amalgamation days, but changing a bylaw can only legally happen at the regional council level, something which speakers at Monday's meeting were hoping to avoid. "To me, the whole point of having community councils is so that you can have a plan for a small area," says Austin. "Keeping chickens in Ecum Secum is different than keeping chickens in the Peninsula. You're not going to be able to do a bylaw at the regional level that will apply to all of them."

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