Chickens in the city? South Bend to consider backyard chicken ordinance (Part one)

By: Scott Palmer Email
By: Scott Palmer Email

To 12-year-old Grace Coman, South Bend is a growing city.

“I think it would be great for South Bend to have chickens,” she says.

Grace is an avid gardener who not only grows her own vegetables, she raises her own chickens.

“You open them in the morning – that takes like two seconds -- and close them in the night,” Grace explained to NewsCenter16 one morning last November. “Every couple of days you clean out their coop… pretty easy,” she summed.

“The kids and I have read a lot about food security,” says Grace’s Mother Karen Schulte-Coman. “I want them to see that it is possible to grow your own food, to be very connected to that food that your own hands helped produce.”

Last November, Grace showed us the chicken coop she helps keep. She collected several eggs, and even cleaned the coop floor, adding new litter and discarding the old. She enjoys caring for the chickens, and wishes she could do it more often.

Why can’t she? This particular farm isn’t hers. It's a friend’s. Grace would love to keep a few chickens at her home in South Bend, but that won’t fly with the authorities.

“It's against the law to have them,” says Grace.

To keep chickens in South Bend, one must have a solid five acres and keep the birds at least 50 feet inside the property lines. Few residential properties are that large. So for most residents, chickens are off-limits in the city limits.

Karen decided to change that, and started a petition. Five hundred signatures later, her newly-formed South Bend Urban Chicken Alliance convinced several council members to sponsor a bill to allow the backyard birds.

Keeping chickens in the city is a nationwide movement. Chicago, Cleveland, Indy, Bloomington – all are cities where household fowl are fair game. South Bend would be next if the bill is passed.

The current proposal would allow up to six birds – hens only, no noisy roosters. Coops must be a certain size, and fully enclosed to keep birds in and predators out. Coops could be no closer than 15 feet to the owner's property line, and 20 feet to a neighbor's house. They must be kept clean to control odors, and none of that could happen unless a permit is paid for first. The estimated price of that permit is about $20.

It's been slow going. South Bend's code enforcement director wanted time to learn what problems other hen-friendly cities have had. While she didn't find many, “we did find that a lot of roosters would end up being dropped off at the animal shelters,” explains the Director of Code Enforcement Catherine Toppel.

For backyard chicken beginners, the egg often comes first, in the mail. When eggs are ordered from a hatchery, “fifty percent of the time you're going to get roosters,” explains Toppel. “So when they get shipped to you, you actually find out later that in fact half of your flock is now roosters, and not [hens].”

South Bend's brand-new animal control facility doesn't have a – wait for it – chicken wing. They can handle a few roosters on occasion, but code enforcement officials have been working with the South Bend Urban Chicken Alliance to hatch a better plan. It’s hoped that “[the Urban Chicken Alliance] will actually accept those roosters on behalf of Animal Care and Control and actually put them out to farm,” says Toppel.

After many months of research and revisions, the bill is finally ready to be presented to local lawmakers. If everything goes as planned, the ordinance will be before the area planning commission in September and the Common Council in October. Public hearings will likely be held at both stages.

In the meantime, the Comans hope to continue growing public support. “Just be open enough to say, you know, people used to feed their family this way,” asks Karen Coman of her fellow South Bend residents. “Maybe it's not such a strange idea.”

She knows she'll face skeptics. St. Joseph, Michigan residents recently voted down a similar ordinance. “I'm opposed to farm animals in town,” says St. Joseph resident Bob Lutz. “I would be concerned about what my neighbors would think about the smell and the noise,” adds St. Joseph resident Kelly Kulich.

And theirs aren't the only concerns. What about health risks? After all, “poultry can carry Salmonella,” cautions Dr. Casey Barton Behravesh of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Others worry about avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu.

Are these real issues, or unfounded fears? In part two of this story, we'll separate fact from fiction when it comes to urban chickens.

For part two, click the link below.

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