Urban Chickens

There is a growing phenomenon in the area of municipal law: urban chicken zoning ordinances.  Communities all across the country now permit chickens in residential zoning districts, including at least forty communities in Wisconsin.   The phenomenon constitutes a change in direction from over one hundred years of American municipal law.

Late in the 19th century large cities began to prohibit livestock in residential neighborhoods. The livestock prohibition was part of a large effort to improve the sanitary conditions of America’s cities.  During the 20th century a significant body of case law developed that concluded that the odors, sounds, and other aspects of raising chickens in residential neighborhoods constituted a nuisance.  Over time most urban communities developed ordinances prohibiting chickens in residential zoning districts.

The success of the recent urban chicken movement has been largely due to a grassroots campaign among individuals interested in local food, increased food costs, food safety, and educational programs for children such as 4H.  A surprisingly large national network of individuals passionate about urban chicken keeping has developed [see http://urbanchickens.org/; and http://www.backyardchickens.com/], and attempts to completely stop the developing trend in large cities such as Chicago have largely been thwarted.

Communities that permit urban chickens have largely sought to implement zoning policies that balance the desire to permit urban chickens with the rights of neighbors to be free from odors, noise, and problems related to improper sanitation.  Consequently, many ordinances permitting urban chickens include the following clauses: restrictions on the number of chickens permitted; restrictions on roosters; permit and fee requirements; enclosure requirements; nuisance clauses; slaughtering restrictions; distance requirements; and other specialized restrictions.

It may be too early to determine if the urban chicken phenomenon is a short term trend or a part of a permanent philosophical change in American zoning law.  The increase in urban chickens could lead to either greater acceptance or greater resistance to the concept.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Doug Hoffer

    Melissa – I’m glad you mentioned urban beekeeping. In researching local backyard chicken zoning ordinances I noticed that urban beekeeping ordinances also appear to be on the rise. The increase in urban beekeeping ordinances bolsters the conclusion that we are witnessing a philosophical change concerning the laws governing urban agriculture.

    I also noticed that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently ran an article describing Wauwatosa’s new backyard chicken zoning ordinance:


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