St. Thomas, Ont. council pecking possible backyard chicken pilot program

Barred Rock chickens roost in their coop Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, at Historic Wagner Farm in Glenview, Ill. AP Photo/Erin Hooley. AP Photo/Erin Hooley

Councillors in St. Thomas, Ont., have opened the coop doors to the possibility of allowing chickens in residential backyards.

City council voted 7-2 on Tuesday to request a report from staff on a pilot project to allow hens in residential areas to look deeper into the program’s regulations before making a final verdict. The decision follows a proposal first put forward by Coun. Tara McCaulley.

“I’ve had a lot of anecdotal feedback on this from several residents and it is a 50-50 split. It is either very much in support of it or very much against it,” she said.

Kitchener, Guelph, Niagara Falls and Brampton are among the 26 Ontario cities and towns which allow residential chickens.

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Referencing a report presented to council this week, McCaulley relayed some of the benefits of backyard chickens, including the usage of “hens as recyclers, education and food source, (as well as) pest control and disease reduction.”

“It was interesting that the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture of Rural Affairs provides some resources for backyard chickens, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency also provides information on biosecurity tips to keep the birds healthy,” she said.

The initial report from staff was presented to council after a St. Thomas resident urged them to consider a pilot program with a $100 annual permit that would allow up to four hens per household.

Coun. Lori Baldwin-Sand, who seconded the motion to request a further report from staff, highlighted that the production of eggs at home would be “a step toward greening our economy.” Additionally, as the only member of council who has been an egg farmer, she said that the “low commitment” process would also help address local food insecurity while simultaneously serving as an educational tool.

“I have spent a number of years being a producer, though not currently, but I do have a fondness for being able to collect eggs and I can say that it is an increasingly growing trend,” she said.

Speaking with Global News on Tuesday, Coun. Steve Peters said while he was in favour of the project, as the former Ontario Minister of Agriculture and Food, he has some concerns.

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“There’s a lot of issues that I know arise, particularly things like avian influenza, and we have large chicken farms in our area, but I was also pleased to see that both the Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have recognized that this is a growing trend within municipalities,” he said. “I’m prepared to give this a chance to see if this can work or not in our community.”

Coun. Steve Wookey also backed the idea, however, requested that the follow-up report include specific details pertaining to training and amount of city bylaw officers needed to regulate the project.

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“Who’s going to be doing the inspecting in the city, and do we need more training?” he asked. “Our bylaw officers are obviously busy, and this is another thing for them to do. I just want to look at it from the staffing side in both terms of capacity, and in terms of training.”

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Going back to Peters, he said that if the pilot project were to be approved, “strict regulations would be put in place.”

“The size of coops, the area involved for the chickens to run in, the impact that these are going to have the proximity in someone’s backyard, to their neighbours, so there’s a lot of factors that will be taken into consideration as we roll out the pilot project,” he said.

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According to the report from staff, a test program would have a control group of six to 10 residents who would keep the backyard chickens for a minimum of two years where staff would monitor both complaints as well as arising issues.

However, some councillors turned down the idea, explaining that they are not in favour of the proposed program.

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Coun. Gary Clark said that “as a council trying to be problem solvers, not problem creators, I see this as having huge enforcement issues.”

“If we were to enforce what most of these other cities have, the available area would be about eight meters from your house, with three meters from each of your neighbours. There are very few lots in the city that are going to be large enough to house the chickens,” he said. “We’re also in a northern climate with a lot of darkness in the wintertime, hens don’t tend to lay in those months.”

Voicing similar points, Coun. Jeff Kohler said that while he initially thought the program would be an “easy yes,” he now sees it “opening up a huge can of worms for council and staff.”

“There’s some people that would like to do this, and there’s other people that live in the city for a different reason and want their comfort. But now looking at some of the pros versus the cons, the cons just continue to grow,” he said.

London last discussed this issue in 2020 but decided against it. Strathroy-Caradoc also discussed a similar project in February, but also voted against it over fears of avian flu.

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