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Sundre’s backyard hen proponent eager for progress

Owen Petersen encouraged by introduction of chicken bylaws in neighbouring towns
MVT-backyard hens
Sundre resident Owen Petersen, who presented to council a case for allowing backyard hens during the Sept. 28 meeting conducted by teleconference, delivers at the town office the next day to Betty Ann Fountain, development officer, a stack of papers with names of people who support the initiative. Simon Ducatel/MVP Staff

SUNDRE — A local proponent for allowing residents to raise backyard hens is encouraged by neighbouring towns that have recently introduced their own bylaws.

And Owen Petersen's enthusiasm was further fuelled following a June 9 meeting with administrative staff to go over a draft bylaw prior to the town starting public consultations.

But Petersen also hopes the municipality adopts simple, straight-forward guidelines that do not duplicate existing federal or provincial laws and needlessly make the process more onerous than it needs to be, for the sake of both residents and municipal staff.  

“I brought this up in my initial presentation — and will really fight for it — I want a very simple bylaw for Sundre that doesn’t get complicated,” Petersen said late last month during an interview.  

“I want to focus on educating people, to show them that four to six chickens is not a big deal and it won’t cause huge neighbourly conflicts,” he later added on June 11 during a follow-up call.

Last October, Petersen outlined to council a detailed presentation demonstrating how concerns some people might have about chickens can easily be mitigated without having to create a time-consuming bureaucratic burden, largely by banning roosters and limiting the number of hens to for example half a dozen birds.

In light of Petersen’s address to town officials, council at the time carried a motion directing administration to coordinate with him on the effort to draft a bylaw.

Although administration has since followed up with Petersen to get the ball rolling — having prior to last week's meeting provided him with six bylaws from other municipalities to get feedback on best practices — progress has been a bit slow, he said.

But considering the extenuating circumstances caused by the pandemic, Petersen added he fully understood the delays and agreed with administration’s preference to wait for the possibility of hosting in-person open houses since virtual consultations seem to receive less community engagement.

“I get that,” he said.

However, seeing the towns of Innisfail and Olds moving forward with their own chicken bylaws “just makes me more eager,” he said.

“I understand their delays with COVID and wanting to have an open house. But you know, we’re having an open house about the campground,” said Petersen, referring to the anticipated community consultation on the development of the proposed four-season campground and passive outdoor use recreation area.

Further boosting his optimism that momentum might finally be building up is the provincial government’s recently announced economic relaunch strategy, which entered Stage 2 on June 10.

After working his way through the bylaws from Olds, Okotoks, St. Albert, Innisfail, Red Deer, and Crossfield, Petersen expressed doubts about the approach taken by Olds.

“It frustrates me — I hope ours is nothing like theirs,” he said.

Although he’s glad for and supportive of the effort in Olds to allow residents to raise backyard hens, Petersen said from his understanding that the bylaw dives too deep into specific details pertaining to zoning and coop sizes, which he doesn’t consider necessary.

Furthermore, he said the process to update land use bylaws is onerous, time consuming, and requires public hearings. The last thing he wants is to pile a disproportionately oversized workload on administration's shoulder when staff already have many irons in the fire.

So, after reviewing Sundre's draft bylaw, Petersen said he was pleased to see it did not involve the land use bylaw. 

“They’ve been very clever in the way that they’ve done it, so that they don’t have to do a change to the land use bylaw,” he said. 

“Because if you limit (the number of) chickens to six, then why can’t I use my entire garage as this beautiful, big chicken playground if I want to?”

Speaking from experience

Having been previously involved in a lobbying effort advocating for a chicken bylaw by participating in council meetings when he lived in Edmonton, Petersen speaks from experience.

“I had my chickens taken away before the laws changed in Edmonton,” he said. “There were two things that I really liked about the Edmonton bylaw.”

Those aspects largely boil down to simplicity, he said.

“The two things I really liked about the Edmonton bylaw was there was a cap — you could have no more than six chickens — and then you couldn’t have roosters. I think when you do those two things, you really mitigate all of the other problems,” he said.

He was not quite as fond, however, about a requirement for anyone who wants to own chickens to first complete a course.

“It’s just bizarre to me. Not to compare all the time, but you don’t have to take a course to get a cat or a bird or a dog,” he said. 

A valid concern that comes associated with a larger centre like Edmonton pertains to the possibility of people buying chickens as a fad, only to suddenly change their minds, resulting in surge of unwanted hens in Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals facilities that already struggle to accommodate domestic pets like cats and dogs, he said.

“But here, we have two veterinarian clinics,” he said, adding he’s had conversations with the owners of both “They’re very willing to treat and take care of chickens."

And in a rural riding, there is no shortage of potential homes for chickens in the event someone in Sundre regrets buying a few.

“There’s lots of places to send chickens to the farm, if you don’t like them,” he said, adding he had also already contacted a few local farmers in the area who would be willing to welcome hens from anyone who might change their mind.

“So, there can be a list like that," he said.

Petersen said he even approached the Sundre Municipal Library about the possibility of always having on standby books about backyard hens.

“I’m going to donate some of my books to that so people can be educated here in Sundre — they’ve got lots of resources if they choose to get chickens,” he said.

Bylaw comparison review complete

Petersen had before the June 9 meeting with town staff finished the homework assignment given to him by administration to not only review the six bylaws, but also to highlight what he considers pros and cons.

His feedback will further be used to revise and update the draft bylaw prior to the eventual community consultation.

From the municipality’s perspective, the investigative effort to look at other municipal bylaws to create a custom solution that is most suitable for Sundre, continues, said Betty Ann Fountain, senior development officer.

“Administration is working diligently, gathering information and researching the bylaws of a number of municipalities throughout Alberta who allow urban hens,” Fountain wrote by email in response to questions near the end of May.

“From this research, the move forward will be to develop options that are ‘best’ for Sundre. Fine tuning the ‘best’ option will require extensive public consultation."

Ready to proceed

Petersen said he is ready to continue coordinating with administration, and remains committed to participating in the upcoming public consultation.

“I’ve got lots of suggestions, and I hope they’re receptive to them,” Petersen said.

He added administration told him there’s no point in writing a bylaw unless it will work for the whole community.

“Which is fair,” he said.

Petersen just hopes Sundre doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Although many of the other municipal bylaws are similar in scope and objective, they often repeat existing provincial-level legislation.

“I see a lot of redundancies,” he said. “I don’t like it when laws are doubled up on each other.”

For example, he cited municipal backyard hen bylaws tend to stipulate owners must provide the basic necessities of life for the animals.

“Well, it’s already stated in the provincial Animal Protection Act. It’s already illegal to let your chickens suffer cold. So, why would we have to make another rule?” he said.

While community consultations will be conducted virtually if necessary, Petersen and administration are for now crossing their fingers that an in-person open house might yet be possible as restrictions are further relaxed over the coming weeks. 

“The best case scenario is that this summer, maybe July or August, we have an in-person public open house,” he said.

Simon Ducatel

About the Author: Simon Ducatel

Simon Ducatel is the editor of the Sundre Round Up and a longtime columnist for other publications of Mountain View Publishing.
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