Don't count your chickens any time soon.
An introduction Tuesday night of the idea of allowing Wauwatosa residents to keep backyard hens for producing fresh eggs met with little support from city officials.
A memo from Assistant City Attorney Eileen Miller Carter to Common Council members pretty well shot down urban chicken-keeping for now. Members of the Community Development Committee voted to table the discussion and bring it back in September.
After ticking off 13 separate City Code sections "directly contrary to the keeping of chickens" in her memo, Carter wrote in conclusion:
"Urban keeping of chickens is incompatible with many of the city's ordinances. To reverse the position on chickens would require a dismantling of a number of city ordinances and would require changes in the standards of living, health and property values these ordinances are designed to maintain. The city's resources in several departments would be drained or unduly burdened due to the necessity of vigilant enforcement in numerous and varied areas of expertise. The health and building departments, among others, would see a significant increase in workloads in order to investigate and monitor compliance any regulations which might be put in place. It could be reasonably anticipated that neighboring residents would complain to the city about the visual noise, fecal littering and risk of predation. The city's ability to respond to these complaints would likely interfere with the city's ability to provide services in other areas."
Her memo also mentioned documented cases of salmonella from urban chickens.
Up against that negative assessment, the hens hardly stood a chance.
In remarks to the committee and public, Carter raised an even more fearsome specter, if an unlikely one.
"Chickens outside," she said, "could encourage wolves or coyotes."
The coyotes are already here and need no further encouragement. Wolves, on the other hand, were exterminated from the Milwaukee area about 150 years ago and haven't returned within 150 miles since.
It's a long way to go for a chicken dinner.
In the face of such initial opposition, Cornelia Beilke, who had lobbied the city to consider a chicken-keeping ordinance, did her best to defend her feathered friends.
"It's all over the country," Beilke said. "It's something very pleasant to be acquainted with the source of your food.
"People have kept chickens for thousands of years."
A supporter, Michael Arney, cited environmentally beneficial reasons for raising chickens and referenced the ordinance allowing them in Milwaukee.
"Milwaukee is very careful" to avoid the kinds of worries Carter mentioned, he said. "I think there's ways it can be done."
One woman said simply, "I've you've ever eaten fresh eggs compared to eggs from the supermarket, you'd never go back."
Ald. Bobby Pantuso agreed with that much, saying he would relish the idea of picking fresh tomatoes and mushrooms, collecting fresh eggs and making "the world's best omelet."
But he quickly went on to say that he worried about irresponsible owners who would neglect to care properly for their chickens – such as the one whose hen "escaped from Milwaukee and was running loose on North Avenue."
Alds. Jim Moldenhauer, Dennis McBride and Cheryl Berdan were dead set against the idea, citing the cost of enforcement of a new ordinance.
But several aldermen wanted to keep the door open at least part way, committee chairman Jeff Roznowski and member Greg Walz-Chojnacki among them.
Ald. Jason Wilke, polite and soft-spoken as always, seemed a bit perturbed that the city staff's report cited only its own existing ordinances and negative reports from other official sources without looking at any successful urban chicken initiatives – particularly Milwaukee's.
"The City of Milwaukee has just 16 applicants and only one complaint," he said. "This is not the volume of people we think is going to happen.
"But it is being done all over the country. I've had several constituents who've asked about it, and I don't think it's the nuisance that people think."
Wilke suggested that staff should take a look at other cities' rules and then draft an ordinance that would satisfy Wauwatosa's concerns, rather than dismissing the question out of hand.
With that, Pantuso moved to hold the matter over until September to allow time to research what Milwaukee and other cities have done.
Calls to Cream City Hens, the group that successfully lobbied Milwaukee to create a chicken-permitting ordinance, were not returned Wednesday.
According to the organization's website, these are the requirements of the Milwaukee ordinance:
The ordinance that was passed allows for four hens in each residential back yard, any breed, any size, providing that you meet some basic requirements of the City of Milwaukee, including:
- A secure, sanitary, predator-proof coop and run. The city requires 16 square feet per bird, and it's recommended that 4 square feet be interior (coop) and 12 be exterior (run).
- Birds must have access to clean water and food at all times.
- No roosters are allowed on residential properties.
- No slaughtering within city limits.
- Approval by the owners of all neighboring residences (those on either side of your dwelling as well as those across an alley directly behind you as well as kitty-corner across an alley from your lot).
- A 25-foot setback is required for the coop – this means that your final constructed coop must be 25 feet from neighboring residences (this does not include garages, lot lines, garden sheds, greenhouses, etc., and the run does not factor in to this 25-foot measurement).
- A permit is required, for which you must pay $35 and meet all requirements of the city regarding the rules of the full ordinance and have properly filled out all paperwork required by the city.
- An approved DNS-362 site plan to the satisfaction of the Department of Neighborhood Services.
- A DNS-363 Neighbor Approval Statement Form from every neighbor touching your lot line.