In a pair of memos to the Faribault City Council, City Administrator Tim Murray laid out the potential next steps for city residents interested in keeping chickens within city limits.
In the first memo, Murray provided an answer to a question raised by Councilor Elizabeth Cap about whether pet or urban chickens might actually be legal under a loophole contained in Section 6-81 of city code. Under section 6-81, city residents are allowed to keep small, non-domestic animals as pets, so long as they are “continuously” contained in a cage. Cap had argued that since the chickens owned by the Klecker family are contained within an enclosed coop, they could be exempt.
However, Murray said that Section 6-81 is linked to another in city ordinances, which only exempts non-domestic animals. Chickens are classified as domestic animals, meaning they lack that same protection.
In a section regarding “Animal Sanitation,” chickens are barred from residential areas along with livestock and other farm animals, allowed only in manufacturing, open space/agricultural or transitional urban development districts.
Expanding the protections to chickens would be an option for the council, though it would require a second portion of the ordinances to be amended as well. The council could choose to implement a broader regulatory framework, as proposed by city staff during prior discussions in 2017.
At that time, a proposal to allow pet chickens failed to gain the support of the city’s Planning Commission, but councilors were sufficiently interested in the proposal that they asked staff to prepare a draft ordinance that would allow the legalization of urban chickens. In response, some residents raised concerns about smell and noise issues. More troubling to the council were concerns from Jennie-O, one of the city’s largest employers, that an outbreak of bird flu could have catastrophic effects on operations.
Just one year prior, avian flu had affected 108 farm operations in 23 Minnesota counties and prompted the killing of over 9 million turkeys. More than 225 workers at Faribault’s Jennie-O were furloughed, and county and state fairs disallowed birds from celebrations that year.
Faced with those concerns, Councilors ultimately decided that they couldn’t proceed with the ordinance proposed by city staff, even though it included a number of measures designed to mitigate nuisance concerns and reduce the risk of avian flu spread.
The issue was raised once again this year after Kathy Klecker and her 11-year-old son Zach asked councilors to consider a change to the ordinance. The Klecker family has raised chickens for more than two decades, but city officials recently told the family to get rid of the chickens because they’re not allowed in city limits.
The Kleckers enjoyed strong support from Councilors Cap and Jonathan Wood. Both visited the Klecker residence and came away even more assured that the city could and should allow the Kleckers and other families to keep chickens on their property.
Wood has said he believes the concerns of chicken critics are largely overblown. He noted that during the bird flu pandemic, the vast majority of outbreaks took place in commercial poultry facilities, not among small, family owned flocks. He added that it’s important to have a thorough regulatory framework, but expressed skepticism that city staff would really have to spend that much time enforcing such an ordinance, arguing that only a small number of chicken owners would likely request a permit.
While Wood and Cap both criticized current code as an example of unfortunate government overreach, a majority of the council ultimately did not agree. At its June 12 work session, the remaining council members said they weren’t interested in discussing the matter.
One week later, the council partially reversed itself, voting to extend the amount of time the Kleckers have to move the chickens from their property. However, Murray said that discussion of the issue in general has not thus far gone through the proper channels.
“Addressing topics such as this at work sessions or under “Other Discussion” is inappropriate, as we need to ensure that items are actually given full consideration and provisions for public input are part of the process,” he wrote in the memo. “Applicants don’t actually get an official council position nor should they be able to get an “answer” from the council (as no binding decisions are made at work sessions or for non-agenda items anyway) without the matter being properly vetted.”
Murray encouraged the Kleckers to apply for a change in zoning ordinance through the Planning and Zoning Division. However, with the council expressing reservations about pet chickens, it’s not clear whether such a measure could proceed.
The city would also need to decide whether to modify yet another portion of the city code, which limits the total number of adult animals to three unless the animal owner has a kennel license. With six pet chickens and a dog, the Kleckers would be in violation of this ordinance as currently structured even if chickens were permitted as pets.
One alternative suggested by Cap and explored by Murray could be a citywide referendum — the topic of Murray’s second memo. In order to get on the ballot, an initiative would need the support of 1,734 registered Faribault voters, 1/5th of those who voted in the last mayoral election.
Should the signatures be successfully collected and certified as valid, the council would decide whether to place the issue on the ballot during the next general election, or hold a special election specifically for its consideration. Councilors would also have the option of simply enacting the request.
While voters always have the right to amend the city charter through the referendum and initiative process, the charter provides a very high bar to clear. Murray said that he isn’t aware that any such referendum has taken place in Faribault since 1976.
The COVID-19 pandemic could make the collection of signatures for any petition even more difficult. Electronic signature gathering within the city would be very difficult, and Murray said it’s not clear under city code whether it would even be permissible.