A divided Columbus City Council compromised and tabled a final vote on banning chickens in the city limits. The council’s action sends the issue to a citizen committee to determine how the city should regulate backyard chickens.

About 70 people crowded into the first floor hearing room at Columbus City Hall on Tuesday night, and more than 25 people spoke during a two-hour hearing. Nearly all who spoke were in favor of allowing residents to continue raising chickens in their backyards, although a few spoke in favor of banning them.

The issue has been brewing for more than a year, starting when the city’s code enforcement officer cited two Columbus families in spring 2015 for violating a local ordinance banning chickens within the city limits.

In August, the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals overruled the decision, allowing city residents to keep chickens as pets until the matter could be studied further and an ordinance drafted about regulating chickens and other farm animals within the city limits.

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The council reopened discussion on the issue two weeks ago when it gave initial approval to an amended city ordinance that would ban chickens from being raised within the city limits, labeling them as farm animals. Councilwomen Elaine Wagner and Laurie Booher voted against the ordinance on first reading.

Protests on social media about the proposed ban ensued, and those favoring continuing to raise chickens gathered 400 signatures on a petition which was presented to the city.

However, Councilman Frank Jerome pointed out that it would be a fairer representation to have two petitions asking residents how they felt, asking them to choose whether they wanted backyard chicken raising to continue, or wanted to sign a petition asking that it be banned.

Several from the pro-chicken camp recommended the issue be put before the entire community in a referendum, which drew loud applause.

Creating a committee

The council agreed to create a 10-member citizen volunteer committee, with five representing the pro-backyard chicken members and five representing the anti-backyard chicken members, along with two council members. So far, Councilman Tom Dell has agreed to serve.The committee recommendation about how the city would regulate chickens and who would police that regulation, will be due back to the council in October, Mayor Jim Lienhoop said.

The committee will be tasked with determining the proper oversight and limitations to backyard chicken raising, including addressing health issues, whether chickens attract predators and whether there needs to be a set limit for number of allowed chickens at a city residence.

“I thought the crowd behaved very admirably,” Lienhoop said of the lengthy public hearing. “Everyone was very respectful. It was democracy in action.”

Lienhoop said he is optimistic that even though the pro-chicken and anti-chicken proponents seem at odds, he hopes to see the respect demonstrated in Tuesday’s night’s meeting will be reflected in the committee.

“What we’re after is a reasonable compromise,” he said.

That compromise needs to take into account that backyard chickens need to be contained to the owner’s property, Lienhoop said. There has to be some limitation about what people do so that the effect of backyard chickens on neighbors is limited, he said.

“You have to remember, this started a year ago with free-range chickens who wouldn’t stay home,” the mayor said.

The decision to send the issue to a committee came after Jerome made a motion to table the issue and have the pro-chicken group come back with a proposal in October. That failed with council members Frank Miller, Tim Shuffett, Tom Dell and Dascal Bunch voting no.

Dell explained he couldn’t support having just one perspective on the issue crafting a proposal for the council to consider. He said both sides, for and against, needed to be at the table.

Miller agreed, saying he had been receiving calls from all over the city asking him to support the ban.

“I can’t discount anyone who contacts me,” he said. “I’m elected to hear all the people. I’m listening to your side,” he said to the crowd. “But I’m also listening to their side,” he said of those who supported the ban.

Many of the pro-chicken camp had argued that the lack of public comment from those supporting the ban indicated that there wasn’t support for banning chickens.

But Miller said those contacting him did not want to identify themselves in a public meeting and disturb the friendliness of their neighborhood by speaking against a neighbor.

The decision to delay and compromise was appreciated by those who raise chickens in Columbus, who had argued passionately that their desire to have backyard chickens did not create smells or noise and did not infringe on their neighbors’ enjoyment of their property.

Susan Bishop, who asked the council to allow the residents to keep their chickens, praised the council’s decision to create the committee.

“Working together is a great move,” Bishop said.

Multiple people volunteered from the pro-chicken group to serve on the committee, and Lienhoop said he will ask for committee participants among those who have contacted the city seeking the chicken ban.

Divided council

The decision to table wasn’t unanimous, as Miller and Bunch voted against it.Bunch was annoyed by the council’s reluctance to make a decision, describing the entire process as a circus.

“We need to make a decision,” Bunch said after the vote.

Those who spoke to the council Tuesday night gave a variety of reasons why the ban was unfair, from those who said they are struggling to put food on the table to others who said the chickens serve as a daily educational reminder for children of responsibility and self sustainability.

Amber Porter, who is part of a group called the Columbus Homeowners Initiative for Chicken Keeping, said her family chose to live in Columbus for its progressive attitude.

A chicken ban would send a message that the city isn’t progressive and the city isn’t interested in attracting people to the community who want to live in a progressive environment, she said.

Melinda Burton, Columbus, told the council there are many residents who oppose backyard chickens but said many don’t come forward to speak because they don’t want to create issues with their neighbors.

Responding to comments that the pro-chicken group felt discriminated against by the proposed ban, Burton said those who support the ban believe they are being discriminated against every time they go into their backyard and see and hear chickens next door.

She said the pro-chicken group was asking for the majority of Columbus to pay for an extra code enforcement employee to police the backyard chicken coops for a minority who have chickens.

“These people knew they were not supposed to have chickens,” she said.

Lienhoop smiled when asked if he was surprised that the most controversial issue to arise in the first year of his term so far is backyard chickens.

Land-use questions, whether involving zoning decisions or land use, generate some of the greatest public attention, he said.

Interested in volunteering?

People are being sought to serve on a committee that will hash out a new proposal governing housing of chickens within the Columbus city limits.

To volunteer to serve on the committee, send email your name, address, telephone number and whether you are for or against having chickens within the city limits to mayor@columbus.in.gov.

Mayor Jim Lienhoop said five people from each side will be appointed to the committee.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.