Got eggs? Backyard hens will soon be allowed on lots less than an acre

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If you live in Huntsville’s urban areas and have ever wanted your own backyard chicken coop, you may soon have your chance.

At its February 13 meeting, Huntsville’s Development Services Committee re-opened discussion about a housekeeping amendment to the Town’s zoning bylaw that would allow up to five hens on a lot less than one acre in size, something that is not currently permitted.

That part of the amendment was sent back to committee after Councillor Jason FitzGerald raised concerns at the January 28 council meeting where the housekeeping amendment was to be ratified.

Backyard hens were first added to the zoning bylaw in 2013 as a two-year trial, which was amended in 2015 to allow them as an accessory use on properties that met the requirements outlined in the bylaw.

A staff report presented at the meeting notes that the majority of complaints received to date have involved “the manner in which hens are being kept (running free, location of coop), as well as the number of hens on a lot.”

The proposed change outlined in the housekeeping amendment was based upon a review of backyard hen provisions in other municipalities, and would allow up to five hens on lots less than one acre, provided the location of the coop meets requirements (kept in the rear yard, in a screened, rodent- and predator-proofed enclosure located a minimum of 4.5m from a side or rear property line, which is a decrease from the existing 6.0m in the bylaw). Up to 10 hens are still permitted on lots greater than one acre, and roosters are still not permitted on any sized lot. The amendment also permits the sale of eggs for domestic use. Hens must be maintained in accordance with good animal husbandry practices as defined by the ministry of Food and Agriculture.

The review of the bylaw was prompted by a request made in October 2018 by the Ball family, who face a court challenge because they are in contravention of the current bylaw. At the time of their request, they had 15 chickens on a 3/4-acre property.

If the amendment is ratified by council, the Balls could either reduce the number of chickens they have to five to meet the new bylaw, or they can apply for an exemption to the bylaw to request that they keep all of their chickens. If they reduce their chickens to five, the bylaw charges against them would be dropped. If they apply for an exception, the Town would ask for an extension on the court proceedings until there is a decision on the application.

Councillor Jason FitzGerald reiterated his stance that the number of chickens permitted in the new bylaw don’t make it sustainable for residents to own chickens when their costs versus the number of eggs or meat they would get in return are taken into account. He said that he’d like to see more discussion to try to come up with a better solution.

But Chair Nancy Alcock noted that such a discussion is broader than what the original intent of the amendment was.

“Originally it was a question of, we want to be able to keep our birds and we can’t have any birds,” Alcock said of the Ball’s initial request. “So it has morphed into a whole new debate. I think that what we were trying to do is update the bylaw to allow you to have birds.” That occurred quickly due to the Ball’s pending court date, but the debate that hasn’t yet happened, she said, is a broader one about lot size and the number of chickens that would distinguish between a hobbyist and something closer to agricultural production.

The Town’s Manager of Planning, Kirstin Maxwell, noted that the amendment to allow five birds on less than an acre is “daring” compared to other municipalities. “No one else is doing it except as a pilot project in one ward in Toronto,” she said. “That’s why the number is so important, because we are trying to apply it everywhere across the municipality.”

Councillor Jonathan Wiebe said that if it were up to him, residents would be permitted to have five hens for every half of an acre of lot size, provided the required setbacks for the coop can be maintained. He added that, because of typical lot sizes, “I don’t think you’re going to run into that problem of having 10 or 15 birds in an urban setting.”

Further discussion will likely have to wait a bit longer, though. Maxwell noted that the Official Plan review process is still underway, and that a comprehensive zoning bylaw review will follow during which they could address the issue. In the meantime, anyone who wants to have more than the permitted number of chickens on their property could apply for an exception, which would be assessed by staff on a case-by-case basis. Later in the meeting, staff noted that the cost of an application for an exception would be just under $1,000.

Committee approved the housekeeping amendment as originally worded. The amendment will return to council for ratification at its next meeting.

Related stories:

Dispute with the Town’s bylaw department over their son’s chickens lands family in court

Planning committee asks staff to review Huntsville’s chicken bylaw

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