Backyard hen program not coming home to roost

·7 min read

It was promoted as a way help residents “reconnect” with their food and, in some ways, get back to nature.

But a motion which would have looked into the feasibility of Aurora adopting a backyard hen program pilot project, one which would have allowed property owners to raise chickens and collect their own eggs, was scrambled on arrival last week.

On a vote of 4 – 3, lawmakers defeated a motion from Councillor Rachel Gilliland which would have tasked staff to report back to Council by the end of next month on the feasibility of such an initiative and the implications any programs might have on the community.

“It has been proven to work in other municipalities such as Toronto, Newmarket and Georgina,” said Councillor Gilliland, kicking off the debate. “Let’s find out why this worked. I was skeptical too at first, so I decided to do a little digging and came across this quote from Toronto City Staff [on their pilot] which said, ‘None of the predicted blights have materialized. The predicted chorus of neighbours [with] complaints, not a peep. There aren’t any complaints about noise or unsanitary conditions in any of these locations with registered hens. We have made a couple of educational visits about coop sizes, but everything seems to be going smoothly.”

Making her pitch to colleagues, Councillor Gilliland said that hens are great for keeping pests such as mosquitos, ticks and fleas under control, help homeowners keep down unwanted vegetation and, of course, are organic fertilizers.

“This is what led me to believe that raising chickens [for eggs] is something people can do in a healthy and safe way,” she said. “These urban backyard hens will produce sustainable, organic, non-GMO foods, offer an educational and therapeutic value for both kids and adults. It is not about raising roosters or chickens for meat.”

Prior to the discussion itself, the motion received a boost from residents at large who submitted written delegations to Council supporting the initiative, including from Marc Mantha, a former resident of Newmarket, who said he saw the benefits of backyard hens firsthand.

“It is wonderful how we’re reconnecting with food and healthy lifestyles,” he said. “People are gardening in record numbers and backyard hens enrich a progressive community. Pilot projects are the best path to due diligence and being able to observe and report firsthand a very manageable sampling. A pilot project also provides everyone the opportunity to learn and better understand backyard hens. It was a wonderful experience.”

Aurora resident Miriam Klein Leiher expressed similar sentiments, adding that within online community discussion forums the interest level is high.

“Many of us have done our research and feel Aurora would greatly benefit from hen coops in private backyards,” she said. “Many of our neighbouring towns and cities have successfully launched pilot projects in their backyards with great success. Myself and my family are not keen on factory farms. Urban hens are a more ecological answer to how we get our food to the table. Hens in the community bring citizens and families together as well. This year has been challenging and this will help my family start a wonderful life-changing project. We all want to do it. Plus, they make great little companions.”

The Councillor’s motion received support from Councillors John Gallo and Wendy Gaertner who said it was worth exploring some of the positives.

“I think it is a great idea,” said Councillor Gallo. “I am actually quite excited about it. The benefits to us are far and wide, especially for children and how much they can learn. There are many, many good reasons to do this.”

Added Councillor Gaertner: “It doesn’t sound like [a feasibility] report would be onerous or a huge amount of time for staff to put together. I would like it to be on a public report what the findings are and then vote on it as a Council.”

Others, however, disagreed and nixed the feasibility report before it was able to get off the ground.

Councillor Harold Kim, for instance, said he did not question the merits of backyard hens, dubbing it a “noble cause” but he said he believed “the vast population of our Town are not ready and do not want chickens at this time.”

“People are just not ready to live next to a house where their backyard has chickens running around,” he said. “Perhaps within a few years of public education and marketing and communication we will get people’s buy-in.”

In Toronto, Newmarket and other communities that have put a similar program in place, the feasibility studies are already out there, he argued, and there is enough information to make a decision.

“I don’t want to waste more time on studies. They are available. We either do this or we don’t,” he concluded.

In stating his opposition, Councillor Michael Thompson said there are already pockets of the community, primarily in more rural areas, that are currently zoned for backyard hens, but he too said the feedback he had received since a hen program was first floated at Council this winter by resident Darryl Moore has been largely negative.

“The conversations I have had with residents, I have simply said to them, ‘How would you feel if your neighbour put up a coop?’ The vast majority of the people I have spoken to don’t want it next to them,” he said. “Many of our [residents] don’t want to see it in their neighbourhood. I am cognizant of that. I am also concerned with the health risk. I have seen a number of different reports and studies with regards to health risks. The most relevant one I found for myself was put out by Public Health Ontario [which] talks about health risks associated with backyard chickens… we are living in the midst of a pandemic and even though everyone takes as much precaution as they can, there is still a risk associated with it. Based on all that I have read and looked at, I don’t see a report changing my mind.”

Also opposed, but for a very different reason, was Councillor Sandra Humfryes who said that specific lot sizes would be required for backyard hens and, with that in mind, such a program would not be “inclusive” for the whole community.

“They all said it is a great idea, but not beside my house,” she said, instead stating that emphasizing garden boxes and other means to grow food would be a better fit for Aurora.

Similarly, in stating his opposition, Mayor Tom Mrakas cited the complaints the Town generally receives from abutting properties when community gardens are proposed.

“I agree that a lot of people think it is a great idea, but not beside them. I think we will run into those issues,” she said. “Also, with the issues as far as how big of a yard you need, it wouldn’t be inclusive to everybody in our Town. The program wouldn’t be available to everyone. I think as Councillor Thompson mentioned, as we do have areas that do allow for hens…in a chicken coop, that we continue to look at those areas. Maybe we have staff report back to us on any findings from the areas that are allowed currently in our Town and if there is anything in those areas that can show us how things are happening, if there are chicken coops right now being utilized in those areas, and you can see the information that comes from that… I don’t think that there is anything that would come back in a report that would change my mind, so I won’t be in favour of asking staff to move forward in working on this and bringing us back a report.”

Although it was clear by the end of the discussion the matter wouldn’t move forward, Councillor Gilliland said it was important for a report to look at “what is good for Aurora.”

“The point is allowing people to [have] that option,” she said. “I don’t know who this vast majority is because I haven’t seen the vast majority [of communications cited by the rest of Council]. Part of the process in each municipality is for public consultation and I don’t take that lightly. If the public says, ‘That’s not what I want,’ I would like to listen to what the public has to say.”

Brock Weir, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Auroran