Great Falls couple asks city to consider allowing urban chickens
Urban chickens have come up again in Great Falls.
Jaron Wethington spoke at Neighborhood Council 7 during their May 10 meeting and asked the council to consider supporting an urban chicken ordinance, legalizing backyard hens once again in the city, as drafted by he and his wife.
It’s not the first time a proposed ordinance for urban chickens has come up since a 2007 city ordinance change outlawed backyard hens in all but one city zoning district.
Wethington said he was thinking to go to the city’s neighborhood councils to gather support to send his proposed chicken ordinance to the ballot for a public vote.
Chickens were on the 2017 ballot and failed by a vote of 6,646 against to 6,040 in favor.
Attempts to amend city code to allow chickens in most zoning districts failed in 2011 and a Great Falls couple, Cheryl Reichert and Charles Bocock, filed a civil lawsuit against the city in 2016 over the chicken ordinance and their multiple citations for illegal chickens. That lawsuit is still pending in District Court.
Wethington’s proposed ordinance would allow residents to have up to six hens on single-family properties.
The proposal wouldn’t allow roosters or at-large hens.
Anyone wanting to keep hens, under the proposal, would need a coop of some kind that can’t be closer than 20 feet to any structure inhabited by someone other than the hen keeper or within five feet of a property line.
That’s similar to the 2017 draft of a chicken ordinance that city staff crafted during discussions of sending chickens to the public ballot that year. In that draft, coops had to be at least 30 feet from any dwelling occupied by a person or persons as measured from the exterior wall of the chicken coop to the closest exterior wall of the adjacent dwelling and 15 feet from any property line.
Wethington’s proposal would require those interested in keeping hens to obtain a permit from Animal Control, which falls within the Great Falls Police Department. It would also require inspections by an animal control officer for permit approval and if complaints are filed. Animal Control would also handle enforcement.
The 2017 city staff draft created a domestic hen permit within the Great Falls Animal Shelter, which handles other animal related permits.
During the May 10 meeting, Wethington said he thought an annual hen permit and associated fee would cover the costs for the animal control officer.
Several members of the neighborhood council questioned whether that fee would cover the cost of a city employee and others said the existing three animal control officers are overburdened as it is, often with complaints of barking dogs.
According to the city’s budget for the current fiscal year, animal licenses for dogs, cats, hobby breeders, multiple animal permits and beehive permits generated $36,000 to $41,000 in revenue for the city animal shelter and is budgeted to generate $40,000 this year.
GFPD Chief Jeff Newton told The Electric that one entry level animal control officer costs about $35,000 annually, more when the benefits are factored in.
Two women who attended the meeting said they supported backyard hens and suggested that Wetherington contact Reichert and Bocock who had lead the effort to legalize chickens in 2017, as well as raising public awareness.
Dozens of people spoke at public meetings and submitted letters regarding urban chickens in 2017, as well as in 2011 and in the early 2000s while a special committee was created to study changes to the complete animal code until the provision outlawing chickens in all but the R-1 zoning district went into effect in 2007.
During the May 10 meeting, Wethington said that backyard chickens would allow residents to be self-reliant and have a reliable food source, particularly if there were other shutdowns similar to the COVID-19 restrictions in 2020.
Troy Lane, the council’s vice chair, said that his background is environmental science and believes chickens have benefits but wasn’t sure they were good in the downtown area where one of the council’s top issues is nuisance properties.
“This is a complicated issue,” Lane said.
Lane said he lived in Seattle and his neighbors had urban chickens that he appreciated, but isn’t sure that backyard chickens would work downtown, though it could work in other areas of the city.
He said he wanted to support it, but “I just don’t want to regret it.”
Sandy Rice, a council member, said she didn’t support the ordinance given the existing issues with dogs.
The council took no action on the proposed chicken ordinance.
Wethington is scheduled to present his chicken proposal to Neighborhood Council 8 on May 20 and Neighborhood Council 6 on Sept. 1.