by Dennis Dalman
Be it resolved: Chickens should be able to roost in residential areas.
That assertion was the topic of a lively, engaging debate Nov. 20 in the Sartell City Hall chambers, attended by about 70 people. It was the first of a planned series of debates organized by local residents, some of whom have connections to the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University00.
Moderator Patty Candela of Sartell said the debates are planned to foster a community engagement with issues that could directly affect Sartell residents. In the debates, she said, residents can meet to listen to and discuss issues in a direct, polite way.
Before the debate, as audience members arrived at city hall, each was given two pennies. On a table inside the entrance were three plastic trays. One was marked in favor of allowing chickens in yards, another was marked opposed to chickens in yards, the third was marked undecided. Each person was invited to put one of the two pennies into a bin coinciding with his or her opinion before the debate.
An hour later, after the debate was finished, those same trays were passed around through the audience members who were asked to put the other penny into the tray that coincides with their opinions after hearing the debate. The point of the “two-cents worth” exercise was to determine how many minds were changed among the listeners during the debating process.
Those who debated the pro side of the “chicken” question were Jean Lavigne, an environmental-science professor at CSB/SJU, and Matt Lindstrom, a political-science professor at CSB/SJU. Debating the con side were Lisa Schreifels, director of health for the City of St. Cloud, and King Banaian an economics professor at St. Cloud State University, radio personality and former state representative. Lindstrom and Schreifels are Sartell residents.
The debate question about chickens has been a sometimes-hot topic in the news for years. Some cities, including New York City and some areas of the Twin Cities, now allow hobby chickens in some backyard urban areas. The issue has also been discussed in recent years at city-council meetings in the greater St. Cloud area.
The following are brief paraphrased summaries of points made by each debating member:
Lindstrom: People have a right to keep chickens in their yards as a local food source and as a means of sustainability. Allowing chickens does not mean everyone is going to do it. In fact, very few will. It does not mean there will be roosters crowing, annoying people in the morning. It does not mean chickens will be running wild, causing havoc. The sky will not fall. Lots of cities, including major ones, allow it. There will be easy rules and laws covering the right to have chickens in yards. Problems can easily be dealt with as part of a learning curve. Politicians and others are offering no choice in the matter. It’s time opponents quit resorting to fear-based arguments.
Banaian: Liberty is always a good goal. However, allowing chickens to be raised in urban areas can erode both liberty and civility in neighborhoods and cause friction among people. Noise, smell and sanitation issues could surface as problems. Some neighbors will not like chickens next door, and studies have shown it can lead to lack of respect and fights among neighbors. It can also cause property values to decline, making it harder for affected neighbors to sell their homes. In addition, city councils can spend too much time and effort on chicken-in-yard issues, as has been shown in some cities, such as Fergus Falls. The best solution is to support local farmers’ markets for healthy, quality food items, including eggs and chicken meat.
Lavigne: Many of her students and other younger people have become estranged from their food sources to the point where some have never seen a live chicken on a farm or in a market. Having chickens in an urban environment is one good way to put people in touch with food sources as a means of education and as a way to promote health. The popularity of farmers’ markets shows people are becoming increasingly aware of where their food comes from and want a closer personal contact with it. A benefit of urban chickens would be good, healthy, fresh eggs. Chickens roosting tend to be very quiet, not noisy as some claim. Leaf blowers can be much more annoying. Chickens also eat scraps, ticks and insects.
Schreifels: As health director for St. Cloud, she is familiar with animal complaints of every description. Chickens in cities where they are allowed in yards do occasionally get loose or are abandoned, requiring in many cases someone to chase down the chickens. The birds can cause problems, including noise and smell. They can lower property values. Enforcing rules would require time from city officials, as well as expenses through the taxpayers. There are many ways to “connect” with food sources, including via farmers’ markets. The taxpayers should not subsidize having to deal with problems caused by chicken hobbyists.
Lindstrom: Property values of homes would not go down. The “abandoned chicken” argument is overstated.
Banaian: As is sometimes said, “The right to your fist ends at my face.” Chickens can become a nuisance in urban areas. By having them, one abridges the rights of one’s neighbors. A chicken co-op outside of neighborhood areas is the way to go.
Schreifels: Raising chickens is not the most efficient protein source for food. By all means, people should be in contact with their food sources through involvement with nature – gardens, farms and fishing. Chickens in backyards is not a good way to do it when considering the problems they could bring.
Lavigne: It’s good to interact with the animals near us. Chickens are not pets or wild animals. They are part of human history for thousands of years.
Lindstrom: There are many cities where raising chickens in backyards has gone just fine. Many cities, such as Maple Grove, report no problems at all. Many other cities report one or two problems in a year’s time. Studies of those cities show they spend a minimal amount of time enforcing rules.
Schreifels: Surveys were done on the topic. Bloomington, for example, reported legal battles about the chicken-in-yard issue. Sartell has no animal-control officer, and the police have to handle animal complaints. Chickens could attract other unwanted animals into yards. A chicken-in-yard ordinance would soon get complex.
Dogs can be nuisances too, far more than chickens would likely be.
Chickens can be noisy, indeed.
Will there be enough veterinarians in the area to deal with any problems?
Don’t we have zoning codes against this?
Banaian: Chickens in yards will violate neighbors’ rights and lead to incivility. Chickens in yards were OK in the old days. In a modern urban environment, they are not OK. There are perfectly good alternatives, such as co-op chicken farms.
Lindstrom: Opponents should avoid their fear tactics. This is about choice – well-regulated choice. The success of chickens in yards has been proven in other cities. It’s time central Minnesota joins them.
Schreifels: People need not be disconnected from animals in an urban environment. We do have zoning laws for a good reason. Some chicken owners do, in fact, let them go when they lose interest in them. Then, they often get hit by cars. No one needs additional regulations right now, more regulations that will require money and time to enforce.
Lavigne: There is no compelling evidence as to why chickens are a problem. The number of chickens in any given yard could be limited. They wouldn’t reproduce as many cats and dogs do. Chickens are easy to contain in a coop. They are not a nuisance and they are not threatening. The benefits far outweigh any possible drawbacks.
Based on the pennies placed in the trays after the debate, the results showed the opposition won the debate – that chickens should not be allowed in urban yards. That is, compared to the pennies added to the trays before the debate, at the end of the debate seven people changed their minds from pro to con, whereas only three changed their minds from con to pro.
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.