Friday, January 10, 2014

Revising the ordinance

So, on that fateful day back in April 2013, after I concluded my remarks and sat down, City Council representative-at-large Tom Bruno spoke up.  He asked that the record show that he was willing to support a study session to revise the ordinance that kept Champaign residents from keeping a few hens. "You can have four Great Danes but you can't have one hen?  What is the logic of that?" he argued. To my surprise, he was able to persuade five of his fellow Council members to sign the request for a study session.

A study session is where the real work of the City Council takes place. In the case of the hen ordinance, the City's Planning and Development department was charged with drafting a study session report. Luckily, Planner Lacey Rains Lowe was put in charge of this task. In Fall 2012, Lacey had worked on an environmental sustainability plan for the city, Champaign Growing Greener, that advocated allowing poultry and bee keeping in the city, so she was already aware of many of the advantages of keeping backyard hens.

While Lacey worked on preparing for the study session, I met with council members individually to find out what concerns they had, and to help them understand why allowing backyard hens might be a good thing to do for the community. I also sent regular email bulletins to the people who had signed my petition or who had contacted me as a result of local news coverage.

The study session was finally scheduled for July 9, 2013. Worried that the meeting might be packed with anti-chicken forces, I emailed everyone I could think of to encourage them to attend or to contact their council member about this issue. When I showed up at the meeting, there were lots of folks in attendance, and nearly a dozen people spoke up in support of a change to the ordinance. To my amazement, the City Council voted 8-1 to have staff draft a revision to the municipal code that would allow residents to keep a few hens for egg-laying.

Naively, I had hoped it might still be possible to get chickens that summer, but soon found out that we would need at least one more study session and a Council vote before the ordinance could be revised. While Lacey put together a team of City staff to draft the revision, I focused on continuing to educate people about the issue. I sent out more emails, kept people updated on my Champaign Chickens Facebook page, and put together an information session at the Champaign Public Library with a panel of experienced chicken-keepers.

The second study session was scheduled for November 12, 2013. Lacey held a meeting the week before to unveil the proposed ordinance and coop registration process, and my friend Debbie and I both felt that it all looked pretty reasonable. The day before the meeting, the News-Gazette devoted special coverage to the issue, and once again I worried that it would bring the anti-chicken opposition to the study session. But once again, the Council voted 8-1 in favor of the proposed ordinance, suggesting just a few minor tweaks.

Finally, on December 3, the City Council gave their final approval to the ordinance. Effective December 17, Champaign residents would be able to register their coops, and chickens would once again be allowed in the City.

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