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Commissioner White’s position on Urban Chickens

August 27, 2010

On Monday, Grand Rapids City Commissioner James White released a statement to clarify his position on the proposal to allow city residents to have chickens. White did not vote, since he was on vacation when the City Commission decided the matter, with a 3-3 tie.

Below is White’s response:

Introduction: After keeping an open mind to consider all sides; after conducting a site visit; after hearing from constituents, many of whom are only a half generation from farming; and after considering the role of our city in the region, I have concluded that chickens would not be appropriate for Grand Rapids. My reasoning is as follows:

Test one: In principle, a public policy should be applicable to all citizens. We can ask the test question: If everyone did it, would it be beneficial or detrimental? In my opinion, the chicken ordinance fails this test. As long as a few people have chickens, there is no detrimental impact. But if everyone got chickens, the city would be changed dramatically for the worse. Therefore, only a few people could benefit from the ordinance.

Test two: In principle, a public policy should be applicable to all similar cases. We can ask the test question: If someone wanted to have turkeys, on what logical ground would we deny them that right? In my opinion, the chicken ordinance fails this test. A chicken is a farm animal and so is a turkey. To apply an ordinance to one farm animal and not to another, could be criticized as subjective or inconsistent.

Test Three: In principle, a public policy should strengthen our city’s role as an urban core. We can ask the test question: Does the policy heighten or lessen our identity as an urban center? I believe the chicken ordinance fails this test because it lessens our identity as an urban core. Grand Rapids officially serves as the urban core for the federally designated Core Based Statistical Area (CBSA) for our west Michigan region. The CBSA is used by the Office of Management and Budget in Washington and the Census Bureau and related agencies for developing the federal budget, for accounting and for economic analysis. Grand Rapids is also the county seat and our city collects taxes on behalf of other jurisdictions. It is Grand Rapids that causes Kent County to be officially designated a ‘Central County.’ While Kentwood and East Grand Rapids may have chicken ordinances, they do not play the same role as Grand Rapids.

Test Four: In principle, a public policy should have meaningful public support. I have been persuaded that my Third Ward constituents are opposed to a chicken ordinance.

Alternatives: Our city has at least three ways of getting farm fresh and organic foods.

1. Our retailers are increasing available organic foods.

2. We have a fine farmers market, which may become year round.

3. We can join or form a buying club that buys directly from a specific farm.

At one level it is refreshing to see a substantive response from an elected official on this matter. Having said that I would like to take issue with his points.

First, the idea that if everyone one had chickens in the city it would be detrimental to the city does not hold water. White provides no evidence or argument of how it would be detrimental to the city. It probably isn’t practical for everyone in the city to have chickens in that some people are not capable of taking care of them based on their health, abilities, and space available to raise them. So, even the idea of everyone having them is sort of a false argument.

If everyone in the city composted in would not be a detriment to Grand Rapids. There would be less waste going to the landfill, more organic fertilizer would be created, and even if everyone was not gardening the compost could benefit those who do garden or surrounding farmers. Thus, the idea that if everyone were doing it, it would be bad is a weak argument. On the flip side, if everyone in the city had a car would the city be better off is a question that is not asked. People need transportation, but more cars means more pollution, more traffic jams, more parking space, and more dependence on fossil fuels.

In his second point White argues that the city has to be consistent in its policy, so if people raised chickens, why not turkeys. Again, in some ways he is creating a false premise. People are advocating for raising chickens in the city, because they are chicken and not pigs or turkeys. People who raise chickens know what that means and how viable it is in terms of space and care, so you can’t paint a broad brush and say that it would be inconsistent for people to raise one animal and not another.

We have a zoo in this city. Bears are not urban animals, not big cats or most of the other animals kept at the John Ball Zoo. Zoo supporters would argue they are there for educational purposes, which isn’t questioned by residents or elected officials. Chickens in the city also provide educational opportunities and they would provide healthy food for people.

Commissioner White’s third test seems to be his weakest. Just because the city of Grand Rapids is the “seat of Kent County” doesn’t have any relevance in this case. In fact, the commissioner argues against himself by pointing out that other communities in the greater Grand Rapids area allow people to have chickens. This begs the question, why won’t Grand Rapids allow it?

White’s attempting to make distinctions between urban and rural in many ways are part of the problem around sustainability. We need to change this way of thinking and not place narrow perceptions on what is urban and rural. It would be more sustainable for the future to think about communities as eco-systems and how to improve them. We need to abandon the urban/rural dichotomy that is really just a product of the industrial revolution and no longer necessary, especially if we want to be serious about the future.

Commissioner White’s last point about listening to constituents is an important one, but his comment on it is incomplete. We would all be served better by knowing how many people in the third ward he heard from on this matter and what their arguments against having chickens in the city are. If people are opposed to something based on faulty information then one could argue that it is a misinformed opinion.

If people were not following this issue closely or just relying on the local news media for clarification, then they would not have all the facts. Elected officials need to do a better job at engaging their constituents on these matters if democracy is to prevail.

The suggestions that Commissioner White offers up at the end of his statement on ways for people to get alternative organic foods are all possible and points 2 and 3 would be important actions for people to take. However, people would have more power and more direct input on obtaining organic foods if they were growing gardens and/or raising chickens in their back yards. Giving people to opportunity and support to have more power to make these kinds of choices is what the city should endorse not deny.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Kate Wheeler permalink
    August 28, 2010 4:36 am

    Jeff, I think your logic is impeccable, but there are a couple of points I’d like to make.

    First, I think your argument is weakened a bit by pointing out that we have a zoo for educational purposes and therefore should be allowed to keep chickens for the same reason. Zoos are an abomination; they are prisons for animals who should be living in the wild. More and more city zoos are releasing their animals to sanctuaries and care facilities in acknowledgement of this.

    Second, I worry about animal mistreatment. Nothing to my knowledge was laid out in the initiative to address this in detail, and city resources are very limited. Example: I had neighbors who used to abuse their dog. One time, they left on a Memorial Day weekend trip and left the dog in a pen with one bowl of food and one bowl of water–and it was 90 degrees all weekend. The dog drained his bowl of water one hour after they left. I spent the weekend sneaking over to their property to give the dog food and water. When they came back and discovered this, they were furious. They were members of the CRC, which apparently teaches that people have “dominion” over animals and animals are here to serve us in any way that people–especially “the elect”–see fit. The dog, they said, was a hunting dog, not a pet, and their experiment in leaving him with limited food and water was to “toughen him up” for hunting. I had not only trespassed, but disrespected their religious beliefs, they told me.

    I can see problems arising with people in this area having the same viewpoint about chickens, and cruelly mistreating them as those neighbors mistreated their dog. (I ended up reporting the neighbors to the Humane Society, by the way, because the City told me they just did not have enough staff to send someone out to examine the situation). How would intervention take place in a case like that? It would be horrible to live next door to someone mistreating farm animals, or not giving them proper sanitation, and you can’t tell me that these sorts of problems would not arise, or even become common.

    Third, raising chickens would allow vegetarians to feed chickens appropriate vegetable-based diets and getting safer eggs as a result. But what about people who would feed chickens animal by-products? I can also imagine people not wanting to build safe henhouses or invest in vet care to prevent spread of disease.

    The ordinance may be able to cover all these points, but as my experience with my neighbors shows, you cannot force people to act equitably or compassionately. And without adequate protection for the animals, is it really a good idea to pass an ordinance and deal with those realities later on, while some animals suffer needlessly?

  2. August 28, 2010 2:54 pm

    Kate, I appreciate your well thought out response. I completely agree on your comments about zoos. I do not endorse them or support them. I was merely using the argument that zoo supporters would use that they are “educational,” and therefore have a place in our city.

    On the matter of people abusing chickens, I’m sure that abuse will occur just as abuse of dogs and cats and other animals happens at the hands of some people. However, I think that just because some people might abuse chickens should preclude anyone having the right to raise them. I am glad that I am legally allowed to have a dog live with me as it makes my life so much better, even though I know that there are dogs in our community that are being abused. I think rights should be extended to all even if that means that some people will misuse them.

    There should however, be clear, enforceable guidelines about having chickens in the city if the ordinance becomes a reality in the future.

  3. Kate Wheeler permalink
    August 28, 2010 9:13 pm

    I agree, Jeff. I feel that allowing the raising of chickens is an important step toward urban sustainable living. I’m not against the concept, but I would like to see an ordinance that addresses these issues with clear-cut enforcement guidelines…and the resources to back them up, which would possibly mean an expansion of the city’s animal control/protection services. A strongly written ordinance won’t, of course, eliminate all the problems–but it would offer pathways to allow for the correction of problems, and, if necessary, rescue.

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