Chicken coops are here to stay

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It was good news for a dozen Okotoks families when they learned their backyard chickens won’t have to leave the henhouse anytime soon.

Town council voted unanimously Oct. 24 to allow backyard hens in Okotoks, provided necessary changes to Town bylaws can be done before the end of September 2017. The vote came after a 15-month pilot program that saw hens in 12 back yards in town with no complaint from other Okotoks residents.

Jenni Bailey, head of the Okotoks chapter of the Canadian Liberated Urban Chicken Klub (CLUCK), spearheaded the campaign for a pilot program after her unauthorized chickens were discovered by the Town in 2013. She was relieved to see council turn around on the issue with a unanimous vote – the original decision to launch the pilot saw only four councillors in favour – and left council chambers in tears.

“It’s relief, and joy, and happiness,” said Bailey. “It was just such a fantastic outcome.”

Their backyard hens had become a family project, with each of her three boys – aged 14, 10 and seven years old – naming and taking care of their own chicken. They would often elbow each other out of the way to get out to the coop when they thought an egg had been laid, she said.

“It’s a real treat to collect a warm egg. It’s really special,” said Bailey.

She said the pilot went very well and rather than concern from her neighbours, there was a vested interest in the chickens. Some neighbours brought food scraps to feed the hens, others just wanted to know more about them and how they were doing.

Living close to Westmount School, the Baileys’ backyard also became a walkable field trip site, and many classes visited the home to learn more about hens and food sources.

“They would come and talk about how to provide and grow your own food, what it takes to take care of these animals,” said Bailey. “A lot of moms accompanied those field trips because they wanted to learn about backyard chickens, too.”

For Bailey, the main purpose of having backyard hens is to provide eggs for the family.

She said sourcing local food and knowing how animals are cared for is important to her. She purchases her beef, lamb and meat chickens from local farms owned by friends, and felt having her own hens to provide fresh eggs made sense.

“It’s important to me to know how the animals are cared for, the quality of life they have and what they eat,” said Bailey. “And I can control that when they’re in my backyard.”

Her hens reside in a four-foot by four-foot coop – a children’s playhouse purchased from Costco that the Baileys modified to include nesting boxes and a roost. Outside the coop is a fenced chicken run about four feet wide and 10 feet long, she said.

The rules of the pilot program stated backyard chickens could not be free-ranging, but Bailey said now that the program has been approved she hopes council will consider allowing supervised free-ranging. If the chickens’ wings are clipped they wouldn’t be a flight risk and could explore the yard more, she said.

“It would be a lovely addition, if I’m in the backyard gardening that the girls could rummage through some leaves or clean up a certain area,” said Bailey. “I think everyone who’s had them would like to have more birds and would like to have them free-ranging with supervision. Those are conversations we would like to have with the Town.”

The parameters of allowing urban chickens will be decided by Town administration over the next 11 months. Municipal enforcement administrator Angela Clay said there will be a lot to consider as the Town includes hens in its responsible pet ownership bylaw and amends land use bylaws to allow for chickens.

Until the bylaws are amended, backyard hens are considered part of a “notwithstanding program,” because they are currently not provided for.

“Basically, council is waiving the restrictions in certain bylaws that prohibit people from having agriculture in their backyard,” said Clay. “Council has approved the program so it’s not a pilot anymore, but it isn’t finalized yet because we have to figure out which bylaws need to be amended in order to accommodate the program.”

She said the pilot went smoothly with no complaints from Okotoks residents in its 15-month run, after the initial application process.

There was one neighbour adjacent to an applicant who was worried about the noise and smell, but the coop was located on the opposite side of the yard and the Town didn’t hear back from the complainant, she said.

The program allows for up to 18 homes in Okotoks to house urban chickens, she said. Applications are considered on a first-come, first-served basis and some have already begun to come in since the program was approved last week, she said.

“The number of homes was determined off the population of Okotoks, so as the population increases that number would increase in conjunction,” said Clay.

There is no cost for the initial application, though once a resident is approved there is an annual hen permit fee of $30, she said.

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