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Divided on issue, DeKalb city council moves to put backyard chicken ordinance on April '21 ballot

DeKALB – Unable to come to a consensus during a contentious debate regarding whether to approve an ordinance allowing residents to keep backyard chickens, the city council on Monday moved to put the issue in the hands of the voters.

After a nearly two-hour back and forth, the city council voted 7-1 (Ward 2 Alderman Bill Finucane the 'no' vote) to push the issue to a potential referendum in the spring. It's not the first time the council has elected to not approve an ordinance in support of owning backyard chickens, as the topic has been a focal point at varying levels in city conversation since 2011.

Ward 1 Alderman Carolyn Morris, who along with Ward 5 Alderman Scott McAdams vouched for the measure prior to the meeting and said City Manager Bill Nicklas shouldn't weigh in on council policy, said the council should listen to residents.

"It's abundantly clear this is what people want," Morris said. "I mean, I eat raw cookie dough, are you guys going to stop me from doing that? I don't think it's our role to be the paternalistic body that tells people how they can responsibly use their private property."

Nicklas said the city doesn't have funds to enforce ordinance rules, to make sure owners would care properly for the animals and address concerns of neighbors if and when they arise.

"There is no money for it," Nicklas said. "If you want me to find the money for it, tell me what you don't want me to spend money on? This is one that is not fiscally sound. We will need somebody to help because the first time a neighbor is not happy, they're going to demand that somebody from the city come out and fix the problem. It's naive to think otherwise."

Division amongst the council Monday night was based on several factors, including the potential risk of chickens spreading diseases in a time where a viral pandemic rages and cost to enforce an ordinance. The debate continued, at times heated as Ward 6 Alderman Mike Verbic said he wouldn't support any chicken ordinance at the time, and instead suggested a referendum to put the decision into the hands of the people.

Several residents sent letters in support of the measure, with 12 letters reads calling for DeKalb to join bigger, more populous areas that already allow chickens such as Naperville, Chicago and St. Charles. No residents spoke against the measure Monday.

"If we pay taxes for a property that we own, we should be allowed to have backyard chickens," said DeKalb resident Diana Izard. "We already pay enough property taxes."

Other residents spoke about the desire to keep chickens alongside urban gardens in their yard, as natural fertilizers, to reduce waste and to create food supply amid food shortages, another side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ward 4 Alderman Greg Perkins said he grew up on a farm with chickens and could support the proposal if the city were to find a way to make it 'budget neutral.'

"What I can say is in my experience, hens are not disruptive, they stick around, they know where their home is," Perkins said.

Those opposed, including Finucane who cited public health concern as a reason for his vehement opposition, said it wasn't the time to consider such a request.

"In light of us being in a pandemic already, why would we want to introduce another source of disease into the city?" Finucane said.

Finucane – who used to chair the environmental commission – attempted to make a motion "to have no further consideration" of a backyard chicken ordinance, but that motion was shot down, with only Ward 7 Alderman Tony Faivre in support.

"I am not disappointed at the fact that folks want us to discuss an item that is very important to them," said DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith. "What I was disappointed at was given the pandemic that we're in, the COVID situation, I felt very seriously that now was simply not the time to move this forward."

Clare Kron, chair of the Citizens Environmental Commission argued in support of the proposal.

"We who are older and have an image to what city life should be may simply not wish to adapt," Kron said. "I want to stress that it is our responsibility to allow our younger citizens the opportunity to use their creativity and energy to help DeKalb evolve to a city with expanded possibilities."

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