Harvard becomes latest McHenry County town to allow backyard chickens

2-year pilot program approved Tuesday

Jessica Martell collects eggs from her backyard chickens, on Wednesday, March 27, 2024, at her home on Half Mile Trail north of Crystal Lake.

Her family had hoped to have chicks at their Harvard home by Easter, but a week or so after isn’t too bad, Jessica Helmeid said.

Now that the City Council approved a two-year pilot program allowing chickens and chicken coops inside Harvard city limits, “we have baby chicks waiting,” she said.

The board approved backyard chickens on a 6-1 vote Tuesday, with 2nd Ward Alderman John Lavallee the lone dissenting vote. Harvard joins Fox Lake, Prairie Grove and Hebron as the towns in or partially in McHenry County that now allow chickens in city limits. Other communities, including Cary, Crystal Lake, Fox River Grove, Johnsburg and McHenry, have denied similar requests in recent years.

The Harvard council started looking at the chicken question last summer, when residents requested a zoning variance to allow it. Final adoption of the new ordinance is pending some language cleanup by the city attorney, City Administrator Lou Leone said. It is a “two-year, probationary ordinance. We will look at it again in two years,” Leone said. “If everything is fine, it will go on to be permanent – or as permanent as an ordinance can be.”

My plan was chicks by Easter, we have just literally done that within days of Easter.”

—   Harvard resident Jessica Helmeid

Those seeking a chicken permit from Harvard will need to have a building permit for the coop and run and must pay a $300 permit fee and a $25 annual inspection fee. There are also limits on the number of birds, with only four chickens allowed on areas of less than two acres, eight chickens on properties of two to three acres, and 12 on properties of three to 10 acres. Each bird will need a leg band identifying the owner.

The Helmeids plan just four birds on their land. The city’s ordinance does not allow for free-roaming chickens but is very generous on how large the bird’s living space can be, Helmeid said. The ordinance calls for at least 5 square feet per chicken in each coop, and enclosed runs must allow 12 square feet per chicken.

Her husband, David Helmeid, spoke to Harvard Community Development Director Donovan Day after Tuesday’s meeting to verify when they could have their coop and chickens set up. Day suggested the family submit their plans right away “and by the first week in April, we should be ready to roll,” David Helmeid said.

“My plan was chicks by Easter, we have just literally done that within days of Easter,” Jessica Helmeid said.

Harvard resident Jessica Helmeid, which her children Myles, Emmaline, and Xavier, with a playhouse that would make a great chicken coop on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. Helmeid is circulating a petition asking the city to allow backyard chickens.

The ordinance was in front of the council in late January, but it was kicked back to the administrative committee for further tweaks. The Helmeids were at those meetings, too, David said. “In two years, we are hoping a lot of these regulations can be sent back (when) we show them that this was worthwhile,” David Helmeid said.

Second Ward Alderman Daniel Carncross praised the ordinance: “Of all the ordinances we have drafted from scratch, this is excellent work. It is a good balance that was a compromise between the ‘fors’ and the ‘against,’ a middle ground that made both sides happy or at least something they wanted.”

Jessica Martell with one of her backyard chickens, Maui, on Wednesday, March 27, 2024, at her home on Half Mile Trail north of Crystal Lake.

The ordinance does require the homeowner to request the permit. “The minimum requirement is owner-occupied properties only,” Harvard Mayor Mike Kelly said.

Day said that a tenant could request a permit via the city’s ordinance variance process.