Chicken fans flock to special meeting

Hannah Gross, NLJ Correspondent

Chickens once roamed the backyards of Newcastle until the City Council outlawed the ownership of livestock and fowls, which includes domesticated chickens, within city limits several years ago, according to City Ordinance Chapter 4, Article I. 

A growing group of community members have been pressing for a reversal of
that ordinance, however, and the council listened to their feedback during a special meeting at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, May 25. 

“Everyone knows why we want chickens. We have shortages of supplies. … I have three boys. I live in the middle of Wyoming with not a lot of resources, so it would be nice to have that security,” said Jennifer Proffer, a local mom. “The whole purpose is so that people can be more self-sufficient.”

Former city council member Linda Hunt opened the meeting by presenting some of her concerns based on personal experience. She explained that chickens have been a part of her ranching life, but they are considered farm animals and should not be in town. Chickens can be chaotic and unclean because the manure gets everywhere when people track it into their homes, cars and businesses from their shoes, she said.

“When I visited a distant relative in Boise, while we were sitting on the patio table eating or having something to drink in her backyard, the chicken would fly up on the table, fluff its feathers, and all the dust and bugs would land on food and us,” Hunt said. 

On the issue of noise, Proffer said that she understands the concern but clarified there would be no need for roosters, so they would only be dealing with hens. 

“I know that some people find the cawing of the rooster annoying,” local resident Jacob Elliot added. “But, on the other hand, some people need to wake up that early anyway for their jobs — might be a little more refreshing.” 

Proffer also commented on the bird flu concern. Based on her research, she said, 19 countries reported a total of 860 infections since 2003, stating the bird flu was a low risk to the public, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“You just need to figure out how to be smart about raising chickens,” Elliot said. 

Meegan Carr said that chickens are not difficult to take care of and that it just takes knowledge and planning. In addition to providing eggs and meat, Carr noted, as scavengers, chickens will eat grasshoppers and other bugs, as well as table scraps. In turn, the manure can be used as garden fertilizer. 

Proffer said that raising chickens would be a great learning opportunity for her children, and Shirley DeMerritt suggested having a class for people on how to raise chickens. 

“I want to use it to teach my children how to care for animals and where their food comes from,” Proffer said.

Proffer said she also talked with the Community Service Officer Rebecca Swentesky about implementing regulations for people to register their chickens, which would bring in more money for the city. The rules would need to be completely laid out with no “gray area,” she explained, so that it would be clear if people are not in compliance with the regulations. They would have to meet the city’s approval before even purchasing chickens.

One of the main concerns from those opposed to legalizing backyard chickens is a lack of enforcement of the ordinances. 

“I would love to have chickens,” Nichole Gregory said. “But my concern is that the majority of people in my experience will not properly care for them. Issues are going to arise, and there are going to be quite a few of them. I know everybody is short-handed. How are those ordinances going to be enforced … and will they truly be enforced?”

She wondered whether there would be enough manpower to enforce the rules, not only now but years down the road. Hunt added that even though the city implemented dog registration to maintain the canine population several years ago, only about 50% of the dogs in town are registered. 

“My experience is that the law enforcement and/or ordinance officers seldom consider the enforcement of ordinances a priority. I do not see this additional task being enforced unless a neighbor, etc., is finally forced to complain,” Hunt said.

In a letter to the city regarding the chicken issue, the author expressed concerns about the current cat problem in town, even after ordinances were passed, and is worried that the same thing will happen with chickens a few years down the road. 

Swentesky suggested that those who register for chickens be required to sign an agreement accepting the responsibility of paying the court fees if they fail to comply and are no longer eligible to own chickens.  

“That way, that’s a little more fire to hold their feet to,” Swentesky said. “We can enforce that ordinance without the city having to pay for it if they (the owners) wanted to fight keeping their chickens if they’re not maintaining them properly.”

Barb Crow questioned the need to even implement an additional ordinance specified to backyard chickens. She said that there are ordinances for health hazards and nuisances already in place that would encompass any issues involving chickens. 

“The basic question here in Newcastle, Wyoming, is do we penalize the responsible animal owner because somebody might be irresponsible?” Crow asked. “Our issue should not be a whole ordinance about chickens. We already have ordinances that cover everything people already complain about chickens. If they’re noisy, if they’re dirty, if they attract predators, so do house cats. … Why do we need to control chickens? We just need to control the irresponsible chicken owners the same as we would control the irresponsible dog owner.” 

Several citizens brought up the fact that many larger cities, such as Casper and Denver, allow chickens. Linda Miller said that Hot Springs recently implemented backyard chickens, suggesting they could be used as a reference and source of information.

“There will be people who abuse it, but I mean there’s people who abuse everything.   … If you are going to restrict people based on that, we’d be in trouble,” Miller said. 

“We’re in Wyoming, we’re in Newcastle, we’re small. If these big cities can have chickens, how hard can it be for us to have chickens?” DeMerritt said. “Let’s just be Wyoming. Let’s just be Newcastle. Let’s just have chickens.”

Recently retired Newcastle City Clerk/Treasurer Greg James was unable to attend the meeting, but expressed his thoughts in a letter which was read aloud by Mayor Pam Gualtieri. Because this has been an issue dealt with by the city years in the past, he argued that the current ordinances banning backyard chickens have already been carefully discussed and analyzed. 

“I can think of no valid argument that should sway the council to reconsider the previous decision on this matter,” James said. “Also, it is an irrelevant argument that other communities allow it. That should have no consideration in the discussion.” 

He said many people do not want barnyard animals, which includes chickens as defined in the ordinance, in their backyards because of the pestilence they would bring. He warned that chickens in town would increase the number of wildlife predators, including raccoons, bobcats and even mountain lions. Chickens would become the doorway to justifying other barnyard animals such as goats, pigs, or even miniature horses. 

“I ask you also to consider those whom you are not hearing from who are also opposed. Not merely those vocal views who are in favor,” James said. 

Councilman Don Steveson added that backyard chickens were once legal in town and the ordinance was put in place specifically because people were not taking care of them. 

“It got so bad (because) people weren’t taking care of them, and that had to be taken away. So, it’s been done before,” he said. 

The discussion on backyard chickens was held at the request of Councilman Ty Owens, who had made it a campaign pledge. He said he wanted to still address people’s concerns and acknowledged the necessity of an ordinance to ensure enforcement. Different regulations regarding square footage, number of hens, and method of avoiding chicken escapees would have to be considered, but he said they could tailor it to best fit the needs of the community. If the council were to move forward with the backyard chicken ordinance, Owens told the audience, they would need volunteers to be on a committee to “weigh-in” on the ordinances.

He also suggested that the show of support in the room spoke volumes about the will of the community.

“Another thing I would like to throw out too is that everybody that read the paper or was on the Facebook page had access and knew that this meeting was happening tonight. And it seems like about 95% of the people in the audience right now are interested in possibly keeping chickens in their backyard, so I don’t know where all these other people are that Mr. James was talking about,” Owens said. “The overwhelming majority seems to be in favor.” 

The council took no action during the meeting, and Gualtieri thanked everyone for bringing their insight and promised that the council will not go into this decision blind. She welcomed anyone to contact council members if they have additional comments, questions or concerns. The next City Council meeting is June 6 at 7 p.m.

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