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Cottage Grove relaxed poultry policy excludes most residential properties

Cottage Grove resident Bob Burtman was forced to appeal to the city council after his neighbor complained about his two mallards and Pekin ducks on his property, which is much smaller than the five-acre minimum requirement as governed by current city code. Bulletin photo by Emily Buss

Cottage Grove City Council members have nearly caged their nine-month urban poultry debate and moved to effectively prohibit chickens and ducks on most urban, residential properties.

The council voted 5-0 Wednesday to recommend a city code change that would allow farm birds on residential properties 3 acres or larger. Current code restricts farm birds to properties of at least 5 acres.

Yet, the relaxed code still would exclude most Cottage Grove residents from keeping chickens and ducks on their urban properties.

The council has talked at length over numerous meetings and workshops about whether or not the city should allow poultry on smaller lots.

Mayor Myron Bailey said he felt the city was not the appropriate setting for poultry.

"After talking to many people, the resounding message was no and this was not the time or place," he explained. "There may be a point down the road -- a long way down the road -- but I believe (urban fowl) was called a fad. But, the question is, 'Will the fad go away?'"

Throughout the study period, city officials spoke with surrounding communities of similar size regarding urban poultry. Of the 52 cities surveyed, 67 percent did not allow chickens and ducks on urban lots. However, the 17 cities that did allow urban poultry required a 1.5-acre minimum, with the majority requiring 5 acres or more. Two cities surveyed required as much as 10 acres of land. St. Paul Park recently relaxed its ordinance to allow poultry and bees on residential properties, so long as they birds and bees are at least 50 feet from neighboring homes and at least 10 feet from a property line.

Cottage Grove resident Bob Burtman doesn't have 3 acres of land, the city's new minimum for keeping poultry. The vocal duck owner and proponent of the effort has kept ducks outside his Harkness Court home for the last year. Last fall, Burtman collected signatures of support from all his surrounding neighbors, but after one neighbor complained to the city, he was forced to make a case for his ducks.

"These animals, they are my pets," Burtman told council members Wednesday. "I think throughout these last few months I've spilled my heart out to you guys and as far as I'm concerned, you haven't listened to a thing I've said."

Burtman appealed to the council, saying the ducks were his pets and "I love them." However, with one neighbor against urban fowl and a community survey finding that the majority of citizens are also not in favor, Bailey said he has to side with the consensus.

"I'm pretty disappointed," council member and urban poultry proponent Derrick Lehrke said of the council's decision. Lehrke originally voted against the code change from a 5-acre minimum to a 3-acre minimum but then asked for a reconsideration, saying he was in favor of lowering the acreage requirement.

Lehrke quoted a University of Minnesota Extension fact sheet, which stated that "raising backyard chickens can be a rewarding experience and a great way to teach kids about agriculture and responsibility of caring for animals." He wanted the council to consider a pilot program to allow 10 Cottage Grove residents to keep chickens and ducks on their property and re-evaluate it in a year. However, his motion did not get a second.

"I understand this is an emotional issue, as it would be for anyone involved," council member Justin Olsen said. "I think we have to take into consideration not necessarily what is today but more so what could be. There may be a time and place for urban (poultry). Regardless, someone is not going to be happy with us."

Since the council's decision is a recommendation to change city code, City Administrator Ryan Schroeder said it is not yet on the books and will need to go through a public process first.

Schroeder added that there are a few properties within city limits that would qualify to keep backyard poultry as a result of the amendment and that the city will be working with Burtman "on an appropriate transition plan" for his birds.