The city leaned farther toward approval of the keeping of chickens after another hearing Tuesday, when a solid majority of committee members, representing half the Common Council, gave their blessing to backyard birds.
The Community Development Committee voted 6-2 in favor of an ordinance that would allow residents to husband up to four hens during a one-year trial period.
City staff would monitor the permitting and enforcement process and the ability of any applicants to humanely keep their chickens during that first year, with the city reserving the authority to cut off the program or make it permanent based on the outcome.
With six committee votes already tallied – assuming they won't change – only three more of the remaining eight council members would have to say "aye" to make urban chickens fly in Wauwatosa.
That's a big change from last spring, when the idea was first brought forward. Only a very few aldermen were then willing to say they wholeheartedly supported an experiment with poultry; a few more were cautiously on the fence; a vocal majority called it poppycock.
The main reason for the change of heart is that city staffers changed theirs. Assistant City Attorney Eileen Miller Carter was chiefly responsible for making a recommendation to the council, and last May she was adamantly opposed to the thought.
Now, after much further research, Carter has reversed course, and she presented a strong case Tuesday for an ordinance that would mostly mirror that of Milwaukee, which has so far been a success.
Chickens as pets, not livestock
There are differences. Whereas Milwaukee treats citizen-owned chickens like legal livestock for the production of eggs, Wauwatosa's proposed ordinance essentially makes them pets, on par with dogs and cats.
Milwaukee – which also limits chicken-keeping to four hens and no roosters – issues a one-time permit for the coop. Wauwatosa would require annual licensing of each chicken kept, just like dogs and cats are licensed, and also like those pets, each would require annual relicensing.
Carter was quick to point out that unlike dogs and cats, the chickens would not be required to wear tags.
Neighbors' approval required
Like Milwaukee, Wauwatosa chicken-keepers would have to have signed permissions from all adjoining neighbors before a city permit would be issued, including neighbors whose property only touches diagonally.
Some of that did not sit well with supporters in the audience, who found contradictions in the city's position.
Why, said one man, if the city wants to regard chickens as pets, does it feel the need to require permission of neighbors that are not required of other pets – particularly dogs, which bark louder than chickens cluck, can bite far harder than chickens can peck, and poop way bigger?
He also said that although he, personally, would probably not seek a chicken permit, he knew he wouldn't get one anyway because he has a difficult neighbor who he knew would black-ball him if he did.
He wanted the neighbor-approval clause stricken.
Other chicken-fanciers did not see why chickens should be lumped with pets at all, since the main object is to produce eggs, not loyalty, affection or protection. Chickens, besides, are shorter-lived than dogs and cats, they said, and it would be a considerable imposition on citizens to have to license up to four birds every year and possibly more if any were lost.
They wanted to see one license issued for the coop, like Milwaukee and most other chicken-friendly cities.
Tough trial period key to passage, alderman says
Several aldermen were sympathetic, not the least of them 5th District Ald. Bobby Pantuso, who admits a hankering for home-grown omelets. But he adamantly argued against any changes in Carter's proposed ordinance, especially the neighbor-approval provisions, saying that if the measure were to pass at all, it would have to be as written and as strict as possible for the one-year trial term.
"Down the road, we can revisit some of this," Pantuso said, "but if you want this to pass, this (neighbor approval) is absolutely necessary. I guarantee you it won't pass without it."
Among aldermen who changed their tunes on chickens were Dennis McBride and Kathleen Causier, who had initially opposed it last year. They said they were now willing to give chickens a try, but like Pantuso, they said, only with the restrictions the draft ordinance imposed.
Not everyone is pleased with the prospect
Alds. Cheryl Berdan and Jim Moldenhauer remained flat-out opposed to the idea.
Berdan said that her own research suggested to her that urban chicken-farming was a craze not unlike that of the pot-bellied pig, which turned out to be a nightmare for animal welfare organizations when people lost interest and decided to unload the porkers.
Berdan also did not see any reason why the city should set up cumbersome new permitting and enforcement procedures, possibly costly ones, for what she believed amounted to a very small number of people getting into something they knew next to nothing about.
Moldenhauer likewise did not want the city to burden itself with more regulations for a paltry few poultry, and said he also saw no reason to create one more attraction for the already growing population of coyotes in urban areas.
In the end, though, Alds. Pantuso, McBride, Causier, Jason Wilke, Greg Walz-Chojnacki and Jeff Roznowski prevailed, recommending to the full council that Wauwatosa give chickens a try.
There will be one more public hearing on the matter. Because it is an ordinance change and not just a resolution, the measure has to be introduced to the full Common Council and referred back to the committee. A few refinements and tweaks are expected, but substantially the same recommendation is expected before the chicken-keeping ordinance could be adopted after another cycle of the council.