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updated: 10/23/2011 11:36 AM

Leaders don't play chicken in this debate

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Q. Why did the chicken cross the road?

A. To force civic leaders into protracted discussions about whether the very presence of chickens should be permitted in the suburbs.

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Or as Justin Kmitch put it in his story from this past week's Naperville City Council meeting: "Naperville's chicken owners scored a victory Tuesday night as councilmen declined to address staff recommendations to tighten restrictions on the keeping of urban fowl."

This matter was before the council because resident David Laird had annoyed his neighbors with the 20 chickens he's been raising in his back yard. The council, though, decided not to follow staff recommendations to impose an $80 permit fee, require screening or landscaping to hide the chicken coops and add language ordering that coops be clean at all times.

If there's one thing I've learned as an editor at a suburban newspaper for almost three decades, it's this: If someone's ox, or chicken, is being gored, there's likely talk about creating, amending or dissolving legislation to fix the problem.

But who knew chicken-raising -- right here in the heart of our highly urbanized suburbs -- was going to be a hot-button issue?

In addition to Naperville's non-action (taken because council members said there weren't sufficient complaints citywide to prompt an overhaul of local law), consider these developments in the past year:

• In May, Batavia allowed chicken roosting in residential areas, with the caveat that residents obtain building permits before they start raising chickens. Also, chickens must stay in a coop or in an enclosed run; such buildings must be at least 30 feet away from any neighbor's building, and at least six feet off a neighbor's lot line. Dozens of people spoke in favor of the proposal at a public hearing. We checked back last month for an update, and as of September, only four chicken-raising applications had been sought.

• Lombard leaders in December opted not to allow people to keep backyard chickens. Trustees said they were swamped with calls from residents adamantly opposed to any such idea. And, as appropriately named environmental concerns committee member Winnie Lyons pointed out, once you allow chickens, you open the barn door for residents perhaps wanting to keep pigs or other farm animals. "Dogs bark for a reason. Chickens cluck because that's what they do," she said.

• After debating the issue for three months, West Dundee late last year agreed to allow most residents on lots of five acres or more to keep backyard chickens. This came with conditions, too: A $25 fee for every four birds; coop and coop enclosure sizes ranging from 40 to 100 square feet; 10-foot property line setback requirement and 15 feet from an adjacent house. There are many more rules, but you get the drift.

If you had been so inclined, you could have learned of the free-ranging debate about chickens just by chicken, I mean, checking out the online version of Kmitch's first story about the Naperville chicken controversy. It contains a good example of what we're trying to do for our readers, whom we're encouraging to sign up for our print and digital package. Next to that story, there are links to the related stories in Batavia, Lombard and West Dundee (and, just for good measure, stories about chicken laws in Oshkosh, Wis. and the Lake County Forest Preserve's move from its farmhouse headquarters). I have attached those links to the online version of this column for your reading enjoyment.

But if you've heard enough on the topic, I leave you with these words from Naperville Mayor George Pradel, 74, on the chicken situation that perhaps best typifies where we've come from -- and where we are today:

"I grew up in Naperville in a time when it was common for families to supplement their food supply by gathering eggs. I'm wondering why we are making rules here for something that should be handled on the basis of one on one. How big of a problem do we have?"

jdavis@dailyherald.com

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