Saturday, July 18, 2009

A New Take on Chickens

embers of the Monona Common Council,
A letter to the city council from Ben Redding. Believe it or not, he manages to give a fresh take on chicken keeping.

Important reasons to vote yes for the chicken ordinance (that don't involve sustainability)

I will be unable to attend Monday's meeting when the issue of chickens will be brought to vote, but I wish to register my support for the ordinance. While I do not plan on raising chickens (raising a 1 year old is enough for now), I respect those who wish to, and I believe it is not the city's place to say you can't, especially when something like raising chickens is, in my opinion, quite trivial and benign. It is also my belief that, while chicken raising clearly appeals to members of the community with a high interest in sustainability pursuits, there is appeal to this for many outside of this group, and there are reasons to vote yes beyond the typically cited "green" support points.

The specific points I'd like to make regarding this ordinance are summarized as follows:

1) My personal experience is that chicken coops fit into the urban landscape
2) Urban chicken keeping is an upscale, civilized pursuit that appeals just as much to the epicure as it does to the "east side Madison-type", and is not an activity that makes an area "tacky"
3) There is strong support for this ordinance in Monona and beyond
4) Voting no on this ordinance works against Monona's vital mission to attract new, young families to our community.

To elaborate on these points:

1) My personal experience is that urban chicken coops are barely noticeable. I have seen coops in the following cities:
  • Honolulu, Hawaii: I have seen several coops here, all in "nicer" neighborhoods. They were all clean and fit in nicely with the dense urban landscape. I used to visit often for work, and the only reason I noticed them was that my work at the time (DOT contractor) required me to be driven slowly through neighborhoods and pay a lot of attention to things on the side of the street.
  • Suburban Antwerp, Belgium: my childhood best friend married a Belgian girl. Her family lived in a very upscale neighborhood and raised chickens, as did a neighbor. The chickens were quiet and the coops were very clean.
  • Neenah, Wisconsin: I had a college friend whose family lived on the very upscale E. Wisconsin Ave in Neenah. I am from Appleton and visited him a few times one summer. His neighbor had chickens, had had them for years, and everyone seemed to think that this was very nice.
  • Oddly, I have never seen a chicken coop in Madison, despite having several "east side Madison"-type friends, as today's State Journal article puts it. Again, I think this speaks to the low profile of the urban coop.
2) My personal experiences with urban chicken coops is directly counter to one of the fears of this ordinance's opposition: that urban chicken keeping would make Monona seem "tacky."
  • My wife's extensive Martha Stewart Living magazine archive has articles reaching back several years touting the benefits to raising one's own hens, with advice on urban hen raising in a few of the articles. You don't get anymore anti-tacky than Martha.
  • Many, many current cooking shows, magazines, and culinary-focused books and magazines also tout the benefits of personal coop-keeping. These materials are typically directed at an educated, well-read audience and tout the epicurean benefits of this pursuit much more than the "green" side.
  • The two urban coops I have seen up close and personal have been anything but tacky.
3) The notion that there is "overwhelming" opposition to this ordinance is overstated at best.
  • My friends (from Monona and otherwise) have no problem with the idea of urban chicken keeping.
  • The neighbors I've spoken to about this also seem to agree that this is a non-issue.
4) I believe that a no vote to this ordinance does damage to Monona's reputation in our area and works against young families looking to purchase homes here. Not because they want to raise chickens, necessarily, but because they recognize that chicken raising is a viable urban activity, and they see opposition to urban chicken raising as the sign of an "older" community that isn't open to new ideas. There is clearly a generational divide on this issue--do not underestimate this very important point. Monona certainly struggles with this perception enough as it is, and a yes vote on this ordinance is a very simple way to move Monona away from this perception. Let's ride the positive wave of Monona Drive's renovation by continuing to attract positive attention to ourselves from young families looking to move. I'm 29 and have owned a home here for 3.5 years, and I can tell you firsthand that we really need to work on our image to the first-time home buyer demographic. There aren't many young families like mine around here, but they're everywhere in Madison! We can do a better job as a city in appealing to the young family.

Thank you for your consideration.

Best regards,

Ben Redding


  1. Ben, great article. Unfortunately, according to the esteemed mayor, you (and I) should have just moved "to a more rural area..."

    "Mayor Robb Kahl, who has been against the zoning change from the beginning, agrees.

    Kahl said residents have told him, “If I wanted to be out in an area where things like chickens were allowed. . .I would have moved to a more rural area.”"

    Way to really reach out to the young and vibrant people who are moving into this neighborhood, Mayor...

  2. As someone who has lived in Monona for 27 years, I say AMEN to Mr. Redding's comments. Monona has to make itself attractive to younger potential residents and it won't do that by saying "no" to anything that seems to upset the status quo. My children who both grew up here and went all through Monona schools, have both moved away and would never move back here because they feel this isn't a community that looks forward.

  3. Jiminy! Can we get this guy to run for office? He is absolutely right. I don't want chickens, will never have em- but surely don't want to be told by my government that I can't. Good lord. Do whatever it takes to make chickens legal, then deal with the complaints like any other animal. They don't bark- so how obnoxious can they be? I just resent that this council feels they need to legislate this. And, this young guy is right. Folks will never move here with their kids if we continue to just be so close minded and impose all kinds of rules on people. Jeez... hands off!

  4. As long as the chickens are well kept, in a backyard, and really blending in...go for it.

    To tell you the truth, the reason my young family was thinking of leaving Monona (and chickens are not it!) is there is no mid sized home a home in the 2400 square foot range (there are....but few and far between) and because the school board keeps threatening to ship my kids to Cottage Grove for school. I moved here so my kids could walk to school k-12. With Maywood on the chopping block, Nichols closed, talk of me having to pay for another school in CG and potentially my 6-8th grader going to CG...THAT is why I would leave NOT chickens.

    I hope they approve it and we can move on. This is getting far too much press.

  5. I think about leaving town here but it isn't because of chickens. I wish that more attention would be paid to things like how homes look. For instance, people who build a garage (next to their existing garage) and don't finish it for years on end. Or dead trees laying in the middle of yards...for a year. Or tacky lawn ornaments covering front yards. Or the fact that people park cars on their front lawns like a bunch of hillbillies.

    I guess people don't want the government infringing on their private lives but to me it doesn't show pride in the community or homes that they have. It makes me wonder why I try so hard to keep my house looking nice and updated.

  6. Ben,

    This is a great letter to the council, and you make many excellent points. Monona should allow citizens to raise chickens, just as we allow them to have pets or to plant gardens.

    I would add only a few points.

    Assuming that the current ordinance is defeated, I would encourage the council to adopt much simpler changes in our ordinances, so that chickens are treated like any other pet, while also allowing for vegetable gardens and chickens, so long as the produce is not sold. We do not have complicated rules regulating pets or gardens, and I think we have at least 4 households in Monona with chickens right now. We can do things differently than Madison, and trust our citizens to be responsible. When someone is a bad neighbor, then a complaint can be filed, right? Maybe we can approach this in a simpler way.

    As to your point about families, I agree, but I think the proposed reduction in bike-path width along the north end of Monona Drive (Phase II) is a much greater detriment to families. To attract families, Monona will need to start doing what most other communities are doing: to make improvements to our parks, playgrounds, athletic fields, and streets so that children can walk and bike around town. Young families move to communities that are investing in ongoing improvements to things which make daily life safer, and healthier, for them.

    Most families with young children like to bike around town, up to Michael's Frozen Custard, or to Olbrich Park. When Monona Drive is updated, the multi-use sidewalk/bike-path will have a great impact on their ability to walk and bike at the north end of town. This legacy will last for 25 to 40 years.

    Our attitudes about chickens may change over time, but that multi-use path will be hard to change once it is poured in concrete.

    People will quickly forget about the chicken debate and its outcome, but motorists, pedestrians and cyclists along Monona Drive will be directly affected every day once this street is rebuilt.

    Obesity is a national epidemic, and we would all be healthier and happier if we could walk and bike more safely around town. This is also a very important issue for families.

    Additionally, when walking and biking seem unsafe, we choose to drive, which costs money, pollutes the environment, reduces interaction with our neighbors, and deprives us of exercise.

    I am very concerned that we are being distracted by the (chicken) coops, and not seeing the larger ecosystem which we need to rebuild wisely.

    Families with young children notice which communities are investing in these valuable resources, and they vote with their feet. Two families on my block, with 5 school age children, moved to more "family- friendly" communities in the last 3 months.

    Too often we hear citizens resist change because Monona was such a great place when they were younger, as if young families today have the same concerns and expectations that dominated 50 years ago.

    I hope that Monona starts to think more about the future, and the importance of rebuilding our city in a thoughtful, forward-looking way, so that the needs and expectations of today's young families are recognized.


    Former Alderman Chad T Speight

  7. What a waste of time this whole chicken debate is. Keeping chickens is just a fad and I don't think it it greener than buying eggs from the grocery store. In fact, I think it uses more resource.

    I have never gone to the store just to buy eggs. So, unless you are totally self supporting and never visit the store, this isn't a viable reason to support it.

    Also, think about the resources that go into this. You must make a chicken coop and heat it in the winter. You also must purchase the chickens, feed them and see that they have appropriate care.

    I'm all for humane treatment of animals, but you can buy free range chicken eggs at Copps which I happily pay more for.

    Lets drop this and move on to more substantial issues. Here is one. If we want to make Monona greener, why not educate people about insulating their homes? Drive around town some day in January. Every house that has icicles hanging from the gutter is poorly insulated. Heat is escaping the house, warming the attic and melting snow off the roof. These people are wasting natural resources, not to mention destroying their roof with ice dams. In most cases, the isuue can be fixed in a couple hours for about $100 (buy cellulose insulation and borrow the blower from Menards (free)).

    Back to chickens. I don't even care if they do allow them. It sounds like they aren't a disturbance to neighbors, so who cares? Just don't try to sell it as being greener.

  8. Everyone--

    Thanks for the encouraging feedback on my letter to Common Council.

    Travis: if we wanted to be in an area where chickens are allowed, we'd move to Madison, not a rural area (chickens or not, I like it here and I'm staying, for the time being). You and I and most folks around here, even comment #7's sustainability-doubting "Anonymous" all seem to agree, chickens=what's the big deal. But the most important point of my letter to the common council is bigger than "VOTE YES FOR CHICKENS": families around here have a choice on where they want to live, these choices are influenced by the perception one has of different parts of town, the majority of young home buying people in this area know that keeping chickens in a city is no big deal, and so I argue that Monona isn't helping itself by raising such a stink over chickens. If chickens are good enough for Madison, why not have them here? It's time to put an end to the old, tired "we're not Madison" politics that some seem to be clinging to, especially when it's as simple as allowing hens.

    Chad, I don't disagree that the bike path is very important. As far as long term attraction to this city is concerned, you're right: you couldn't do more than to make it easy for people to bike here, since we all know people around here love to bike. I trust that Doug and other sensible members of the Common Council will fight the good fight for an adequately wide path to our community, as I agree the current situation on the north end of Monona Drive is crazy and needs changing. To me, this is even more obvious than the silliness of the chicken opposition--do we really need to worry about this? The bike path north of Winnequah is stupidly bad, so when you redo Monona Drive here, OF COURSE you'd make it bike friendly. It should be clear to anyone following these issues that a vote against an appropriately wide bike path is a vote of someone beholden to another cause, and not a vote that has Monona's best interests in mind. (At least with those silly bump-outs on Winnequah someone thought they were doing a good thing, ie traffic control.... heck, at least there is a bike path there.)

    But again, back to my point: WSJ isn't writing articles about proposals to narrow the bike path. They're writing about chickens, and the reasons are: it's easy to wrap your head around, we're all talking about it, and Madison has chickens. And from my interactions with those outside of Monona, the response is "what's the big deal? Madison has them, right?" Right. So does everyone else--by this point we've all seen the incredibly long list of cities that allow chickens. It is my opinion that it is important that we pass this resolution--not table it--and make this city look like a place that's open to new ideas. You can think that chickens are as dumb as you like, but you can also pass/accept a resolution that allows folks to have them if they want to. And yes, it seems that maybe it would've been best not go this way to begin with, and folks could've just had chickens and no one would've been the wiser, but here we are and I really don't think there's any backing down at this point. (Let's not add to the over legislation by saying you can't sell stuff you grow in your garden... I have irises I need to split and post on Craigslist...)

    Additionally, this is one of those things that's going to come back and pass at some point, whether it's now or later, it's going to happen. We've attracted enough attention to ourselves, let's make it now.

    Thanks again Doug and everybody, and good luck tomorrow with both chickens and bike paths. I'm out of town, so someone please send me an email and let me know how it went. redding dot benjamin at gmail dot com. Send me an email anyway and let's have a party after this is all done. I'll crack an egg in the cocktail shaker and we'll drink something frothy.


  9. Well, it is true that raising a few urban chickens is not cheap or very resource-efficient. So is it green? On certain important levels, anonymous makes good points.

    But who decides? Should government ban this because it is expensive, or arguably wasteful.

    There is a big difference between allowing people to live their lives (raising chickens without creating a nuissance, for example) versus establishing the green police to determine what people are allowed to do.

    I think that the larger philosophical point is important. What exactly should government regulate or ban? Why is it OK to dump downspout runoff into the lake or curbside gutter? This contributes to flooding in very real ways. The low-lying property owners get flooded after a heavy rain. Should government create rules? Penalties?

    The point about making our homes more energy efficient is excellent, BUT one critical error is made. Insulation only works when a wall or ceiling is air-tight. If air is leaking into a wall or ceiling, it will pass right thru fiberglass or loose cellulose and cause ice dams and heat loss. Most of our homes need better AIR SEALING. This is more complicated that tossing around insulation.

    Many people are afraid to seal up walls and ceilings too tightly, thinking that homes need to "breathe". This is incorrect. Houses need to stay dry, and to be able to dry out if moisture gets into a wall or ceiling cavity. PEOPLE and chickens need to breathe. This is a critical distinction.

    The building codes are silent on air sealing and on keeping water out of structures. This is odd, since both are very important. But I would never argue that we should abandon building codes simply due to the fact that our codes are always 10 years behind our knowledge, and terribly flawed due to the politics of regulation. As a knowledgeable remodeling contractor, I am glad, for the sake of homeowners, that some rules exist so that buildings are reasonably safe and efficient.

    Getting back to green agriculture, I would agree that small organic farms are the most sustainable, resource-efficient ways to produce food. Those eggs will be cheaper to produce than eggs in an urban coop, due to the economies of scale on a farm.

    Big commercial farms are cheaper because we do not access fees for the pollution created by the process, and the end product is not as healthy to consume. The costs are paid by society, and future generations.

    Specializing allows each of us to be more productive, and to be wealthier as a result. Being self-sufficient has a certain romance, but unless you are independently wealthy, you will be working really hard to subsist.

    As many people have already pointed out, raising chickens is a labor of love, that is not cheap, and this alone prevents most people from doing it in cities where it is fully accepted and legal.

    I too wish that a lot less time were wasted to obtain simple criteria to allow a few chickens in Monona. Many communities have passed laws allowing for a few chickens with little debate or concern. But in Monona, for reasons that I do not fully understand, we insist on six months of debate in order to erect a stop sign. Go figure.

  10. Anon - buying free-range chickens at Copps isn't "greener" if they still ship the eggs in from who knows where. If you want to be completely green ride your bike to the farmers market and buy the free-range eggs there, but I'm having a hard time trying to figure out how raising your own isn't "green"? The electricity usage is low, and once you have paid for the startup (hens are cheap, the henhouse not so much) it's far more economically viable to pay for seed and heat than to pay $4/dozen every week for eggs.

    Chad - Are you referring to the multi-use sidewalk, or the bike lane that is going to be in the road? While I think that a wider sidewalk is definitely better, is the reduced size really going to be a detriment to riding bikes on the sidewalk for families? While I agree that we need to ensure that new projects are bike and walk friendly, my assumption was that the new section was going to be so.

  11. Yes, there will be 4' bike lanes in the roadway. The walkway Chad and I are talking about is the sidewalk on the west or lake side. It is now 5' and was going to be 10', but was reduced to 8'. Now some people want to cut it to 6.5'.

  12. Thanks Doug. While I support sidewalks being used for families and children on bikes, adults should ABSOLUTELY be in the road instead of on the sidewalk. They are more likely to be hit by someone coming out of a driveway / making a turn onto a road than if they are riding in the road. People pulling out of driveways are not looking for someone traveling at cycling speeds, and drivers making turns onto or off of the roadway look for fast-moving traffic in the road and will often miss a cyclist that is crossing in the pedestrian crosswalk.

    Lets ensure that (adult) riders are protected and encouraged to ride in the street (with a specific and marked bike lane, speed enforcement, and general driver/cyclist education) and it won't be such a big deal about the width of the sidewalk as long as it's wide enough, smooth, and doesn't have blind corners so that drivers can see the children riding...

    As a separate note, is there going to be public input tonight on either the chicken ordinance or the sidewalk width change?

  13. public input? yes, there is always a public appearance section on the agenda and that is at the beginning of the meeting.

    Be succinct and courteous.

  14. Travis: You burn fuel going to the store to buy your chicken feed/bedding. You burn more fuel buying the chickens, taking them to a vet and buying supplies to build the chicken coop. The trucks that bring all of this stuff to those stores burn fuel. You burn coal heating the coop (well, hopefully you pay a little extra and opt for wind power).

    As Chad put it, its all about economies of scale.

  15. Thanks Anon! So, if the case can be made that it's not completely green to have chickens, and it's not financially advantageous to have chickens, can we just claim that they're pets and be done with it?