DeKALB – DeKalb voters will get the opportunity cast their official opinion on urban chickens on the April 2021 ballot, thanks to a unanimous city council vote which approved an advisory referendum on the issue.

The referendum (passed 8-0) will be an advisory one, which will allow the City of DeKalb to better assess public opinion on the issue, to see if majority of DeKalb voters want to keep chickens in their backyard. If the advisory referendum passes, the council will then be able to move forward with crafting an ordinance for ownership, which will also require a vote.

Ward 2 Alderman Bill Finucane, who voiced strong opposition to backyard chickens and attempted a motion last meeting to "have no further consideration" of the issue, changed directions Monday.

"Let's honor the voters," Finucane said. "I think that's the direction we should go for."

The vote came Monday after a decades-long push and a divisive council meeting Aug. 24 in which several aldermen expressed concerns about the birds in backyards. City push back on the issue dates back to 2011, when the Citizens Environmental Commission first began pushing for poultry on privately-owned land, with regulations on number of birds one could own, and stipulations on inspections and other safety measures.

Regulations

Those against, including City Manager Bill Nicklas and previously Bill Finucane, have in the past cited public health concerns and money, including the potential risk of chickens spreading diseases in a time where a viral pandemic rages and cost to enforce an ordinance.

Nicklas on Monday laid out plans for a potential permit and regulations for coops. He has said the city doesn't have funds to enforce ordinance rules, to make sure owners would care properly for the animals and address concerns of neighbors if and when they arise, and that's his primary reason for opposing the measure.

In the drafted referendum, city officials said each person wanting chickens would need to apply for a permit for their backyard structure, which would be regulated based on size. The permit fee is estimated to cost around $84, including a filing fee, inspection and initial site visit by a city official.

Code enforcement and nuisance fees are also discussed, which are estimated to cost $25 for an initial nuisance fee, and failure to pay could result in a lien for the property. Initial administrative expenses estimated for someone failing to comply with regulations, ignoring inspection visits and refusing to pay fines, which would require city legal fees, according to documents, could be about $385.

Citizen response

DeKalb natives and childhood friends Joseph Rathke, 21 and Andrew Tillotson, 21 voiced support of a chicken ordinance, as part of a new group called Sunrise DeKalb, a local chapter of a national advocacy organization centered around the Green New Deal, a proposed piece of legislation currently sponsored by Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey which calls for clean energy, addresses climate change and an end to inequity in housing, social services and economic insecurities among other issues.

The duo said Sunrise DeKalb was founded in the spring and has about 50 members thus far, mostly the under-35 crowd in an effort to promote young people getting involved in community change.

"My mom's family is from southern Illinois, so I grew up visiting my aunt and she had chickens," Rathke said in an interview before the meeting. "From personal experience, chickens are a pretty easy thing to take care of. Under proper regulation, that wouldn't be a significant problem in DeKalb."

Though many came forward in support, not all who spoke Monday were in favor.

Neeley Erickson spoke on behalf of Hometown Association of Realtors, and said she was representing 300 homeowners across the region in opposition to chickens. She said backyard chickens would decrease the value of surrounding homes.

"Realtors are opposed to and respectfully request the City to oppose this referendum," she said. "A mere question on a ballot about chicken farming does not provide enough education for a voter to consider."

In response, Ward 1 Alderman Carolyn Morris (who's voiced support of urban chickens in the past) called into question the association's local footprint since they have offices in Sycamore and Sterling, and said she didn't know if there was evidence to support a dip in property values linked to owning poultry.

"I think that was a deliberate attempt to make us assume how property values would be impacted," Morris said. "If they had that information, they would have led with that."

Sarah Mueller, of DeKalb, said Kirkland and Genoa allow chickens, so why not DeKalb.

"Those communities are not overrun with chickens nor burdened with huge financial costs, predators or disease," she said. "I think disregarding this issue and not listening to residents is a huge disservice to your community."

Jerry Walhstrom, a DeKalb resident and local realtor, also voiced opposition, and said he's read "several internet blogs" citing issues of noise, dirty and smell chicken coops, ricks of disease and unsightliness.

In an interview prior to the vote, Rathke said he feels the desires of many resident who've been asking the city to approve an ordinance for years have been "trivialized" by the current council.

"It's kind of baffling to me that so many people on the city council think that chickens will go around and defecate on everything," Tillotson said. "How many people are going to make the investment of getting chickens, raise them to have eggs then totally mistreat them in such a way where [the city] would have to step in?" It seems like a certain distrust of the good people of DeKalb."

Rathke said the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a lot of problems in the community.

"To me, the issue of chickens is really an issue of control over community space," Rathke said. "I think people in DeKalb should have access to resource that allow them to utilize community space in a way that can benefit them int he community. Chickens are starkly different than the often nebulous chain of food supply in DeKalb which has resulted in massive food deserts and unequal access to food."

Rathke said and the Sunrise DeKalb crew know owning backyard chickens won't solve food insecurity issues totally, but it's a step in the right direction, he said.

"I don't want to act like is is the end all be all of local food security," he said. "Or even a significant part. Because God knows the local government has a long way to go to actually provide housing, food and general economic security to the people of DeKalb. But I think, to us, this issue is an issue of community control."

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