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Low turnout, little support, at chicken ordinance meeting

The Havre City Council's ordinance committee met Tuesday to take public comments on a proposal to allow people to own chickens in city limits, drawing only a handful of attendees, most of them against the proposal.

The city considered adopting an ordinance to allow the ownership of chickens in 2015 but it was voted down 5-2.

In recent months, Havre resident Al Garver has asked the council to reconsider that decision and asked that they consider a similar ordinance, but one that excludes the requirement that all adjacent neighbors must approve before someone can own chickens like the one in 2015.

Garver said he considers such a requirement a "poison pill" that makes it effectively impossible to own chickens, but the other proposed requirements, that owners must first obtain permits and are subject to enforcement, are not issues in his mind.

Some members of the council have indicated a desire to put the matter on a ballot for voters to decide, but Garver has said he doesn't understand why they can't just do an ordinance instead.

Garver has since gathered more than 400 signatures on an online petition to allow urban chickens.

At Tuesday's meeting, City Councilperson and Ordinance Committee member Lindsey Ratliff said she believes the issue should be put on either the 2024 primary ballot or general election ballot.

Ratliff said she had no solid opinion on the matter one way or the other, but expressed frustration that so few of the people who signed the petition actually showed up.

She said even though many of the signatures on the petition were from people outside of city limits she knows around 250 have property in the city and the fact that only one showed up indicates that this is not really a priority for them.

"I know that people have a million excuses, why they can and can't come to a meeting," she said. "I get it, I'm a mom, I have a 2-year-old. I understand when you have other priorities. But if you really, really care about something, you'll make it a priority. ... It's easy to type your name on a petition, but to not physically show up and prove your case shows me that it's not the priority that maybe it was made out to be for the media."

Ratliff said it is the responsibility of the people making this proposal to convince their fellow community members that it is a good idea and so far the people who've gotten in contact with her are overwhelmingly against it.

"That's how democracy works," she said.

City Councilperson and Ordinance Committee member Andrew Brekke expressed similar frustrations, saying that Garver has offered no proposed language for this proposal.

Garver suggested using the language proposed in 2015 with the one condition left out.

Brekke said the idea that requiring the permission of adjoining property owners to sign off on a person owning chickens is a "poison pill" is wrong as that is a requirement for practically every variance a property owner could request, and this is no different.

"Your neighbors' opinions matter," he said.

City Councilperson and Ordinance Committee member Denise Brewer said she's gotten universal opposition to the proposal, including from Garver's neighbors.

Brekke said he's had four people contact him who are in favor of the proposal and nine against, though he admitted that most people know he's opposed to it, so that might skew the numbers in terms of the kind of people reaching out to him.

He said he understands that this is an emotional issue for people, but chickens are not the same as cats and dogs, as they are legally considered livestock, and allowing them opens the door to allowing all kinds of animals in city limits.

He said he's sure that the people who signed the petition are willing and able to care for the animals properly, but not everyone is like that and that will become a problem for animal control.

Brekke also said that home chicken coops can become a spreading point for avian flu, which could be a problem considering the large pigeon population Havre has.

He said he understands that there are benefits to owning chickens, but if people really want to do that then there are other places that will allow it.

"There are certain sacrifices you make to living in a community as well," he said. "Living in a city is different than living in the county in a more rural setting. So you have many choices to purchase property in a rural setting in the county."

Brekke said he also takes issue with Garver's criticism that the council is not moving fast enough on the issue given that so few supporters bother to either show up to these meetings or do anything other than complain on social media or to traditional media.

"They would like a different process where they can go through an online non-verbal format to provide commentary but unfortunately we are a system of laws," he said.

The meeting only drew seven members of the public, only one of whom said they were in favor of the proposal.

Cheryl Lynn Tatum, a former chicken farmer, said she thinks raising the animals is a wonderful experience and she sees nothing wrong with the 2015 proposal, including the requirement of adjoining property owners to sign off on it.

Tatum said her only real concern is that the city should make it very clear, if they decide to put this issue on the ballot, how escaped chickens would be handled.

She said escapes aren't uncommon and she wants to make sure people aren't assuming they can do whatever they want to an escaped chicken.

Brekke said they are going to talk about this matter further in multiple meetings and people with questions can get those cleared up, as well as give their input at those meetings.

Tatum said the council should also make an effort to reach out to the city's more elderly residents who often don't have computers or get the paper.

Havre Resident Dave Brewer said he is absolutely against the proposal, as were most of the people who came to the meetings back in 2015.

Brewer said chickens will attract predators, and egg prices aren't as bad as they used to be, so the economic argument isn't as strong as it used to be.

He also said Havre Animal Control Officer Pete Federspiel has enough on his plate as is.

Federspiel attended the meeting himself and voiced his own opposition to the proposal, saying he's already overwhelmed by dealing with cats and dogs, and adding chickens into the mix will only make more work that will require the city to hire more people.

He said they also do not have the proper facilities to house escaped chicken that they catch while they search for owners.

Havre Police Lt. Lucas Ames, speaking on behalf of Havre Police Chief Gabe Matosich, said his department is completely opposed, as well, fearing an influx of complaints about noises, smells and unsanitary conditions.

He said they also fear the conflict it will create between neighbors as disputes over such things can easily spiral into harassment and stalking incidents as well as retaliation that often results in the death of the animals.

Two other city residents also spoke in opposition to the proposal, echoing the sentiments of previous speakers.

Brekke and Ratliff said if this issue ends up on a ballot it likely won't be on the 2023 municipal ballot, as only one person for each of the five open seats has filed and the election will likely be canceled by acclamation.

Brekke said he doesn't think it's appropriate to ask taxpayers to pay $8,000 in administrative costs for an election just to vote on this one proposal.

Ratliff said if anyone wants to email council members their thoughts on the issue they can go to the city's website, click on their councilor's name and they will be sent right to their email.

Committee members thanked those who took the time to attend.


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