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DeKalb activists say 'let the people decide' on backyard chickens ahead of Monday's council vote

DeKALB – On Monday, the DeKalb City Council will decide whether to place the decision to allow backyard chickens in residential areas in the hands of the people.

A referendum is up for vote on the matter Monday, which if approved would place a decades-long push by some in the city to keep chickens at home to the ballot in the April 2021 election. The vote comes after a divisive council meeting Aug. 24 in which several aldermen expressed concerns about the birds in backyards. City push back on the issue dates back to 2011, when the Citizens Environmental Commission first began pushing for poultry on privately-owned land, with regulations on number of birds one could own, and stipulations on inspections and other safety measures.

DeKalb natives and childhood friends Joseph Rathke, 21 and Andrew Tillotson, 21 are speaking out ahead of Monday’s meeting as part of a new group called Sunrise DeKalb, a local chapter of a national advocacy organization centered around the Green New Deal, a proposed piece of legislation currently sponsored by Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey which calls for clean energy, addresses climate change and an end to inequity in housing, social services and economic insecurities among other issues.

The duo, who will be at the council meeting Monday, set for 6 p.m., said Sunrise DeKalb was founded in the spring and has about 50 members thus far, mostly the under-35 crowd in an effort to promote young people getting involved in community change.

Those wishing to attend the meeting in person may do so in the Yusunas room of the DeKalb Public Library, 309 Oak St., or watch live on Channel 14 or via Zoom: with the meeting ID: 815 9511 5311 and passcode: 030257.

“My mom’s family is from southern Illinois, so I grew up visiting my aunt and she had chickens,” Rathke said. “From personal experience, chickens are a pretty easy thing to take care of. The problems that have been brought up by the city manager and local government have been really overblown as far as I can tell, focusing on sanitation issues and issues of noise. Under proper regulation, that wouldn’t be a significant problem in DeKalb.”

Those against, including City Manager Bill Nicklas and Ward 2 Alderman Bill Finucane, have in the past cited public health concerns and money, including the potential risk of chickens spreading diseases in a time where a viral pandemic rages and cost to enforce an ordinance. Ward 1 Alderman Carolyn Morris, who along with Ward 5 Alderman Scott McAdams vouched for the measure prior to the Aug. 24 meeting, said the council should listen to residents.

Several residents on Aug. 24 sent letters in support of the measure, with 12 letters reads calling for DeKalb to join bigger, more populous areas that already allow chickens such as Naperville, Chicago and St. Charles. No residents spoke against the measure Monday.

Nicklas has said the city doesn’t have funds to enforce ordinance rules, to make sure owners would care properly for the animals and address concerns of neighbors if and when they arise.

In the drafted referendum up for council vote Monday, city officials said each person wanting chickens would need to apply for a permit for their backyard structure, which would be regulated based on size. The permit fee is estimated to cost around $84, including a filing fee, inspection and initial site visit by a city official.

Code enforcement and nuisance fees are also discussed, which are estimated to cost $25 for an initial nuisance fee, and failure to pay could result in a lien for the property. Initial administrative expenses estimated for someone failing to comply with regulations, ignoring inspection visits and refusing to pay fines, which would require city legal fees, according to documents, could be about $385.

“The city manager recommends the defeat of this resolution and a renewed attention to what binds us in public purpose,” Nicklas states in city documents ahead of Monday’s meeting.

Citizen response

Rathke said he feels the desires of many resident who’ve been asking the city to approve an ordinance for years have been “trivialized” by the current council.

“It’s kind of baffling to me that so many people on the city council think that chickens will go around and defecate on everything,” Tillotson said. “How many people are going to make the investment of getting chickens, raise them to have eggs then totally mistreat them in such a way where [the city] would have to step in?” It seems like a certain distrust of the good people of DeKalb.”

Rathke said the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a lot of problems in the community.

“To me, the issue of chickens is really an issue of control over community space,” Rathke said. “I think people in DeKalb should have access to resource that allow them to utilize community space in a way that can benefit them int he community. Chickens are starkly different than the often nebulous chain of food supply in DeKalb which has resulted in massive food deserts and unequal access to food.”

Tillotson said he thinks if city officials feel there are bigger fish to fry, they should leave the issue of backyard chickens up to the people and approve it for a referendum.

“Sure, there are bigger things to tackle, but they have dodged even tackling those things.,” Tillotson said. So it comes across as a bit ironic here. If it’s such a waste of time, you should just make it a referendum or people to answer to in 2021.”

Rathke said and the Sunrise DeKalb crew know owning backyard chickens won’t solve food insecurity issues totally, but it’s a step in the right direction, he said.

“I don’t want to act like is is the end all be all of local food security,” he said. “Or even a significant part. Because God knows the local government has a long way to go to actually provide housing, food and general economic security to the people of DeKalb. But I think, to us, this issue is an issue of community control. I think the way those in local government are opposed and have trivialized or voiced firm opposition to backyard chickens really speaks a lot to their mindset.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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