Fight over backyard chickens moves to Harvard, latest McHenry County town to debate whether to allow coops

Debate rages online on the proposal

Myles Helmeid and his sister, Emmaline, in the playhouse that would make a great chicken coop on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. Their mother Harvard resident Jessica Helmeid is circulating a petition asking the city to allow backyard chickens.

Emotions can get intense when folks get talking online about whether their town should allow backyard chickens.

In Harvard, “the people who are either for it or against it are very passionate about it,” City Administrator Lou Leone said. “It is almost two equal forces.”

Harvard is in the early stages of considering a backyard chicken ordinance, Leone said. A vigorous online debate is happening in the meantime. Mayor Mike Kelly has also chimed in, posting a long essay on the topic to his personal Facebook page and several Harvard-centric pages.

For those who want to know more on both sides of the issue, the University of Illinois Extension offers classes and online videos, according to one of its educators.

The people who are either for it or against it are very passionate about it.”

—  Lou Leone, Havard city administrator

The idea of chickens in town – usually for those who want their eggs – isn’t new to Harvard, Leone said. The city adopted a new unified development ordinance in 2018 that originally included a section on chickens. It was removed by the city council before the ordinance was approved, Leone said.

Then in July, Sarah and Robert Thompson asked the council for a variance to allow chickens on their 3.25-acre property.

After the council denied their variance, the issue was sent to the village’s administration committee to draft an ordinance, Leone said.

Just a few weeks after the Thompsons’ request, Jessica Helmeid also asked the city about backyard chickens. Helmeid then started a petition drive at, and later walked a petition door to door, asking for resident signatures.

Soon after her online petition was posted on Harvard Facebook pages, an anti-chicken petition popped up, too. That petition, posted by Sarah Berg, requests that “Harvard Officials Vote No on Allowing Backyard Chickens on Residential Properties.” Berg declined an interview request.

Towns in McHenry County have not been overly receptive to the idea of allowing residents to have chicken coops in their backyards.

Currently, Fox Lake and Prairie Grove, along with unincorporated parts of McHenry County, allow backyard chickens in residential areas. Others, including Cary, Crystal Lake, Fox River Grove, Johnsburg and McHenry, have looked at but ultimately did not approve backyard chicken ordinances in recent years.

Proponents said they are seeing more pro-chicken than anti-chicken responses.

As Helmeid has gone door to door seeking signatures for the pro-bird petition, neighbors have been open to the idea, with no door slammed in her face “and 20 yeses to one no” of those willing to sign, she said.

“The nos are pretty mean about it. They want to debate you but they are the minority,” Helmeid said.

The Thompsons said they’re interested in chickens not just for the eggs, but so they can use the birds as part of the composting cycle for Bramblewood Farm. The couple grow small kitchen crops and sell to farmers markets.

Chickens “are a good way to deal with things like crop residue and composting scraps that come out of the garden,” Robert Thompson said.

The birds’ waste is then added to their compost bins and back onto their gardens, he said.

“We will use that to feed our perennial crops,” he said. “The eggs are a bonus.”

One of the rules suggested for Harvard’s proposed ordinance is that anyone requesting a coop permit must take classes on raising chickens.

Katie Bell is an educator with University of Illinois Extension office, based out of Olney. She teaches poultry classes in downstate Edwards, Lawrence, Richland, Wabash and Wayne counties.

“Have some basic backyard chicken courses,” she said, adding that the Extension service has a YouTube channel that includes a webinar and short videos on chicken care.

Residents in her counties reach out when they are trying to get local ordinances changed to allow chickens, and she hears concerns as well, Bell said.

Diseases are the biggest concerns. Chickens can carry bacterial infections like campylobacteriosis, E. coli and salmonella.

Bird flu has infected humans, but rarely, Bell said.

“Most of these can be handled by washing hands and washing eggs before you use them,” Bell said. She said the diseases are more of a concern for those who are raising chickens, not those who live nearby.

Another concern is coops attracting more predators to the area.

“The predators are already there,” but may be attracted to the birds, Bell said.

It’s up to the people who own chickens to keep the coops clean – preventing rodents, flies and smells.

“As long as they are following good protocols it will cut down on those kids of pests,” Bell said.

Harvard’s draft ordinance is currently under legal review and will go before the administration committee again before moving on to the planning and zoning commission “in November at the earliest,” Leone said.

An idea has been floated in those Facebook debates that Harvard should send the backyard chicken question to a vote, Helmeid said, adding she’s against that idea.

“There is support on both sides, but I am seeing the same four or five people saying no. There are not a ton of nos,” Helmeid said.

If an ordinance is in place, Robert Thompson said, it does give the city a way to address any problems with permit holders.

It is up to the permit holder to ensure the chickens are healthy and don’t bother the neighbors, Sarah Thompson said.

“It costs $1,000 to build a coop and get chickens in,” Thompson said. “If there is a complaint ... they can lose that investment.”