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With a Packed City Hall Residents Speak on Proposed Chicken Ordinance

July 14, 2010

Last night the 9th floor of City Hall was packed with people who were there to discuss a proposed ordinance change that would allow city residents to raise chickens within the city limits. Even before anyone stepped up to the microphone Mayor Heartwell said, “during my time as both Mayor and Commissioner this issue has generated more e-mail than any other.”

Clearly, the proposed ordinance change was a contentious issue, with both sides speaking passionately about chickens in an urban setting. However, the bulk of those in attendance were in favor of the ordinance change and of those who addressed the commission directly there were 28 in favor and 9 against.

As we mentioned in a previous article, one of the largest egg producers in the state, Herbrucks was opposed to the ordinance change and 3 of the Herbrucks grandsons addressed the commission. They all spoke about the potential for diseases in an urban setting, but mostly they focused on wanting to protect the profitability of their businesses. After members of the Herbruck family spoke, the vice president of production got up and painted a grim picture about avian caused diseases, even though he never cited any documentation to support his position.

The disease spreading claims were countered by several people who are already raising chickens, have researched the issue and found that if raised properly chickens in an urban setting pose no health risks to humans. One of the residents cited a document from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), while another cited the World Health Organization (WHO). Advocates for raising chickens in an urban settling made it clear that if the chickens are cared for properly there would be no health risks to humans whatsoever.

Many children addressed the City Commission and expressed their desire to have chickens as pets and for the eggs they would produce. One young girl read off a list of cities in the US that currently allow urban chickens. Their parents and other adults who spoke in favor of the ordinance expressed the importance of having an opportunity for children to learn where their food comes from as well as an opportunity to do something outdoors and away from the TV or computer screen.

Cynthia Price, speaking on behalf of the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council said that adopting such an ordinance would promote sustainability, more local food production and reduce fossil fuel use for transporting food long distances. She also stated that chicken waste could provide needed fertilizer for urban farmers and that chickens also eat insects, which would reduce the need for people to use insecticides. Price also stated that she was in communication with city officials in Madison, Wisconsin and other cities and they told her there was little money spent on enforcement.

The cost of allowing chickens in the city was a concern raised by one man from the Westside who felt that in this time of massive budget cutting the city could not afford any added costs. However, several people speaking in favor of urban chickens stated that the city could charge a permit fee, which would generate income and more than cover any needed costs for inspection of homes that raised chickens.

Two Westside neighborhood Associations (SWAN and WGNO) said that their board of directors were opposed to the ordinance change, mostly on the grounds that homes were already to close to each other and would not allow enough room to raise chickens. While this would be true in some cases there clearly are plenty of homes that have adequate yard space that would allow residents to have chickens that would not negatively impact neighbors.

Rick Beerhorst, whose family has already been raising chickens at their southeast side home, spoke to the issue of neighbor complaints. He stated that one neighbor complained to the city and said that the chickens were attracting flies. Rick took it upon himself to talk with that neighbor and other neighbors and found that one of them had a dog and didn’t always clean up after them so they put out fly traps, which solved the problem.

Berrhorst also stated that this whole issue has provided him an opportunity to get to know his neighbors better and build community. This was a theme that several residents addressed and one parent said that their chickens were an incentive for other neighborhood kids to come and play at their house.

Other residents argued that having the opportunity to raise chickens could help reduce food budgets, promote healthier eating and could be another component of the City’s efforts to promote itself as a model for sustainability.

However, there were a few other dissenters during the evening. One man who said he used to live in South America said his neighbors had chickens and the flies were awful. He also said that the chickens attracted mice and rats.

Having lived in Latin America myself, where neighbors had chickens and pigs, sanitation was never an issue. It seemed as if the gentleman was trying to infer that having chickens in an urban setting would be like living in a “third-world” country. This man was followed by George House, the executive director of Michigan Allied Poultry Inc., which advocates on behalf of the industry on government matters. House also raised concerns about the risk of diseases, but considering that he is essentially a lobbyist for large egg farms it seems to this writer that he was just defending the economic interests of large egg farms.

One woman who addressed the commission said that she has a garden at her Grand Rapids home and gets eggs from a neighbor. She stated that what is happening is that the “Chemlawn monoculture that we grew up with is on its way out.” She also stated that more and more residents are trying to live sustainable lifestyles and the city needs to recognize this.

After nearly 90 minutes of public comment on this matter the hearing was adjourned with no clear date when the City Commission would decide on this matter. This means that people still have an opportunity to weigh in and let the City officials know what you think about the possibility of raising chickens in the city of Grand Rapids.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. July 14, 2010 2:47 pm

    The claims brought up by these poultry industry reps are laughable. Since when do they care about the well-being of poultry consumers? If they did, they might stop pumping the birds so full of harmful chemicals. It’s clear they just want to protect their own bottom line. I hope this ordinance passes!

  2. Scott Giese permalink
    July 14, 2010 5:34 pm

    At the June Commission Meeting it was passed that there would be a public hearing on the 13th of july and a vote on the chicken ordinance, as proposed, on August 10th. There should be consistent dialogue with the commission until the vote on the 10th of August. Then there should be a large representation on the 10th of August for those interested in the vote. There will be a public comment section the 10th as well.

  3. Jeff Smith permalink
    July 14, 2010 7:30 pm

    Thanks Scott for adding that information.

  4. Kate Wheeler permalink
    July 15, 2010 3:07 pm

    Thanks for this report. I thought that the Press coverage of this same meeting was interesting: There seemed to be veiled attempts to make chicken ownership look criminal (a pastor “confessed” to keeping two chickens) and juvenile (“pro-chicken advocates included preschoolers” plus the article stressed how many kids wanted the chickens as pets–without mentioning that they spoke of egg production at all).

    The Press reporter did put in one quote about sustainable living, but that was the only reference to that issue–whereas the GRIID article reports in much more detail about people wanting chickens for healthier eating and the reduction of dependence on supermarkets and factory-farm products such as the Herbrucks’ produce.

    The whole second half of the article framed the Herbrucks’ dire warnings about disease and the birds consuming heavy metals in city soil, and reported that part in detail.

    The lead set up this treatment: “Chicken lovers flocked to City Hall on Tuesday evening to express their adoration for backyard poultry, while those on the opposite side of the coop said they feared chickens will become new disease threats.”

    This is a great example of how a few well-chosen words and an article’s structure can slant an issue so completely. Although the Press has pedestrian writers, their “journalists” have become pass masters at massaging a story so that it has the most conservative and business-oriented slant possible.

  5. Jeff Smith permalink
    July 15, 2010 3:14 pm

    Kate, thanks for your observations on the GR Press coverage of this story. I was not surprised by the reporter framed the story and was disgusted with all the chicken puns used. I also thought that it was interesting that on the MLive posting of the story the main ad banner was an ad for McDonalds Egg McMuffins, the ultimate expression in factory farm egg use.

  6. Kate Wheeler permalink
    July 15, 2010 4:37 pm

    Missed the Egg McMuffin ad! What a perfect pro-business capper.

    And the puns, as you note, are awful–throughout the paper. Even serious international wire sservice stories have horrible pun headlines slapped on by the Press. And this issue is rife with statements like “residents show pluck” and “City chickens, fair or fowl?” and “Commissioners…risk laying an egg in their decision on backyard chickens.”

    Maybe the Press could cater to one part of their audience by offering a pun-free version of the paper every day. I’d pay for it. Seriously.

  7. teddy k permalink
    July 17, 2010 11:08 am

    More likely than not, that ad appeared on the story based on the “keywords” contained in the story (that is how most Internet advertising works) or using one of the other methods uses ( . I doubt it had anything to do with the Grand Rapids Press wanting to promote factory farming.

    If it was based on keywords, it makes sense that it would have showed an ad from McDonalds since a reoccurring word in the story was “eggs.”
    For example, the ads showing on GRIID.ORG are based on the keywords contained in your post (who knows why the housing one is there, but the algorithms companies use aren’t perfect). So it isn’t surprising that ads about chicken coops and chicken housing are displaying.

  8. Kelly permalink
    April 25, 2011 9:47 pm

    What was the decision? Roosters are a pain but hens are wonderful.

  9. Jeff Smith permalink
    April 26, 2011 1:49 am

    Kelly, the decision was to not allow people to raise chickens in the city.


  1. The Politics of Eggs and Eggs Producers: When Press Releases pass as journalism on MLive | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

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