It seems an Utterson family facing a court challenge for contravening Huntsville’s chicken bylaw will be getting a reprieve—at least for now.
Darcy Ball, accompanied by his ten-year-old son Riley, was before Huntsville’s Planning Committee on October 10. He asked committee to revisit the Town’s backyard hen bylaw, particularly when applied to the family’s Old Muskoka Road property in Utterson.
What we’re here to ask is if the zoning could be changed [so]that we are permitted to have chickens. I understand that in town, with postage stamp lots, neighbours are close together. I think we can’t be put into the same basket of eggs because our property is a lot larger than in-town lots Darcy Ball
He asked committee to reconsider the bylaw as it pertains to rural lots as well as its required minimum lot size of one acre in order to have chickens. He also noted that there are other neighbours around his property with livestock as well as chickens. Ball also said that looking after the chickens is teaching his son about responsibility and healthier living.
The Balls are in contravention of the municipality’s backyard hen bylaw which allows up to five chickens per acre. Instead, the Balls have 15 chickens on three-quarters of an acre. The problem arose when a neighbour complained, which prompted several visits from the Town’s bylaw enforcement department. The Balls were asked to remove their chickens from the property and when they didn’t comply, they were issued a summons to appear in court on December 5.
Ball told committee that with the exception of the one neighbour who complained his other neighbours have written letters to the Town supporting their ability to raise chickens. He also told committee that more than 600 people have signed a petition asking the Town to revisit its bylaw and allow the Balls to continue having chickens.
At the meeting, Town bylaw enforcement officer Corey Crewson was asked about the nature of the complaint against the Balls. Crewson confirmed that it was only one neighbour and said the original complaint was received in September 2017. “The main concern at the time was the number of hens that were there as well as the smell that was coming from the property,” said Crewson. He also said that since the initial complaint there have been other instances where chickens have wandered into that same neighbour’s property.
“Was the smell offensive to you?” asked Councillor Jason FitzGerald.
“I didn’t really smell anything at the time but when I had discussions with Mr. Ball he did indicate that he had gotten rid of the problem birds, being the meat birds. I guess those are the ones that generally do smell out of meat or [egg]laying hens,” said Crewson.
But Ball told committee that the life cycle of chickens used for eating is shorter and that’s why there are now fewer chickens on his property. He also said they’re down to only egg-laying hens. Committee also heard that the family had put up fencing between themselves and the neighbour. Ball also said they are in compliance with the required six-metre set back from the neighbour’s lot line. While Crewson said he could not confirm that information as he had not measured the distance.
In the end, Councillor Wiebe asked what committee could do about the situation. “My understanding is that they’re due to appear in court due to these chickens, which seems a little unfortunate,” he said.
Huntsville Director of Planning Derrick Hammond suggested that the Balls could apply for a zoning amendment as it pertains to their property or committee could direct staff to review the bylaw. “As it relates to the court action, should committee agree with either of those two remedies, you could direct staff to direct our legal counsel for a delay in the court proceeding,” he said.
“We know that you can have five chickens if you have an acre right now. And I think it’s appropriate to ask staff to review that but I would like to ask you where the line is. If it’s not five per acre is it 15, 25 or 50? Where is that line in your estimation?” asked Councillor Bob Stone.
Ball responded that it depends on the location of your property, whether you have birds for eating, laying eggs or a combination of both, as well as the nature of the properties that surround you. “I mean the five chicken law for in-town I believe is proper [but]it all has to do with the cleanliness of the yard, the upkeep of them… I can’t say ten chickens, I can’t say 20 chickens because where we’ve had a few more than that—the short-term ones—we’ve never really had a problem. The only problem arises when you get a heavy rain day after day after day and the smell of chicken is there,” he said. “I personally would say under 20 chickens in an acre would be advisable.”
Ball said as far as meat birds go, you have to buy them in fives or hatcheries won’t sell them to you. He also said there are economies of scale to consider when you’re looking at numbers.
Deputy Mayor Karin Terziano said she agreed that the bylaw should be reviewed but asked the Balls not to add any more hens to their flock until the issue has been resolved. She also asked that they ensure all their chickens are appropriately penned up. Ball agreed with the request.
Councillors then added feedback for staff on what they’d like to see considered in the bylaw’s review. “I think there are items such as setbacks from lot lines, fences, and maybe attach some kind of cleanliness clause to it and general care for animals. So we’re all-encompassing and we don’t have any loose ends where we get into more bylaw issues,” said Councillor Jason FitzGerald. He said he’d also like to see a differentiation made between meat birds and egg-laying birds.
“I think that we need to be more thorough because as the public has become more aware of their food economy and knowing where their food comes from and knowing that they can have backyard hens, it’s going to become more prevalent,” added FitzGerald.
Councillor Jonathan Wiebe also weighed in and said he did not agree with the number of chickens and minimum lot size in the current bylaw. “I would say that we need to look at half-acre lots probably, maybe even smaller because most in-town lots you’ll find are about .2 or .3 acres and if they can meet the setbacks and have two or three birds, I would be absolutely in favour of it,” he said.
But not everyone seemed as enthused. “So will this review also include other animals like pigs, and sheep and hippos?” asked Stone.
Huntsville Manager of Planning Services Kirstin Maxwell explained that the municipality already has a hobby farm bylaw, which allows up to five non-domesticated animals on one hectare (2.471 acres) of land.
In the end, committee agreed to ask staff to review the bylaw and delay the legal proceedings against the Balls until public input has been garnered and council makes a decision on whether to amend the bylaw. “I think it’ll be a good discussion and I’m happy that we all agree that we need to look at the bylaw,” said Councillor and committee chair Nancy Alcock.
Any changes to the bylaw will likely not be dealt with until a new council is sworn in, following the October 22 municipal elections.
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