Backyard chickens remain unlawful in Willmar
Despite some citizen support, keeping a flock of chickens in residential areas remains against Willmar city ordinance after the Willmar City Council's Community Development Committee refused to move the issue forward to the full council. Letters of opposition from Select Genetics and an avian health expert from the University of Minnesota helped keep the ban in place.
WILLMAR — There were plenty of pros raised about why allowing Willmar residents to raise small flocks of chickens in their backyards could be a good thing, ranging from teaching children responsibility to increasing people's connection to their food.
Ben Larson, who runs MNYou, a nonprofit focused on food security issues, saw it as a way to expand the reach of his work.
"We primarily do vegetables but we were looking at how can we expand this so people can have protein with eggs," Larson said. "Now is a pertinent time to look at this, as food production places are shutting down."
Larson proposed a new updated ordinance to the city, which was discussed at Monday's meeting of the Willmar City Council's Community Development Committee, that would allow residents to keep up to four hens in residential zones within the city limits. Currently, hen flocks of less than 50 are allowed only in agricultural or industrial districts and roosters are prohibited everywhere.
However, despite the pros and 14 letters of support from citizens, the committee decided not to act on the proposal, effectively killing the idea for the time being.
While the council members on the committee agreed with some of Larson's reasoning, concerns about diseases jumping from unvaccinated backyard flocks to Willmar's important commercial poultry operations was the main driver for their inaction on the issue. They also worried about the upkeep of animals, the need for coops, the smell, pests and how keeping the birds would impact neighbors.
"There is a lot of false ideas of what it takes to raise them. They are not a typical pet," said Councilor Kathy Schwantes.
Larson said many of those concerns could be solved within the ordinance. The one he proposed, on which he worked with the Public Health Law Center, laid out the dos and don'ts of raising backyard chickens, including the size of the coop, setbacks from property lines and how the animals should be treated. It included a requirement that the animals be vaccinated.
"The ordinance I wrote is just a starting point," Larson said. "There are a lot of families interested."
The city received a number of letters in support, but there were also six letters of opposition, including one from Select Genetics and another from the University of Minnesota's Dr. Carol J. Cardona. She serves as the Benjamin Pomeroy Chair in Avian Health from the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences of the College of Veterinary Medicine.
Cardona said in her letter that while well-meaning, if enacted, the proposed ordinance could have unintended consequences. This could include the possible spread of illnesses such as salmonellae to humans or other poultry illnesses that could spread to commercial flocks.
Select Genetics had similar concerns, especially in regard to the health of commercial flocks and the ability to ship them nationally and internationally.
"This proposal would introduce an element of substantial risk for our industry in one of the most important turkey producing areas in the United States that we don't feel are offset by the potential reward," wrote Dr. Ben Wileman, director of veterinary and avian services with Select Genetics.
City staff members have also shared their opposition to the proposal, including Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt, who said while the proposed ordinance would leave much of the responsibility of nuisance and abatement issues to the zoning staff, his officers would still end up on the front lines.
"It is still WPD that people call at midnight when chicken issues arise," Felt said in an email shared in the meeting packet.
Other staff, including the city clerk and Planning and Development director David Ramstad, also came out against the proposal.
Though the committee did not act on the proposed ordinance and did not send it to the full City Council, Larson is welcome to bring the issue back with additional information regarding the availability of vaccinations for backyard flocks.
"Someone can always bring the idea back here, with the additional information," said Councilor Shawn Mueske.