Some 30 people attended the Oct. 18 backyard hens town hall meeting, which featured detailed questions and occasional accusations of pro-chicken bias.
Maria Maxham, village commissioner of health and safety, held a hearing to share her research on how other towns handle backyard chickens and to try to gauge whether the majority of Forest Parkers would even support legalizing raising chickens in their backyard. She brought in Jennifer Murtoff, an urban chicken raising consultant, to answer resident questions.
While residents have been asking about the possibility of allowing backyard chickens for years, Maxham said that a larger group of people asked the village to at least investigate it. She said there is no firm timeline for when the issue might go before the council, saying several times that the ordinance hasn’t even been written.
The town hall saw a similar share of supporters and opponents, as well as several residents who said that they were simply in favor of exploring it. The supporters argued that other towns allowed residents to raise chickens without any issues and said that it would make the village more sustainable by allowing residents to get eggs on their own. Opponents worried that the chickens would attract rats and predators, and some questioned whether the village had the resources to regulate backyard chickens to ensure chickens remain healthy.
A number of Chicago area suburbs started allowing backyard hens over the past 20 years. In the western suburbs, that includes Berkeley, Berwyn, Brookfield, Oak Park, Riverside and Westchester.
Several residents in attendance brought up the fact that, a few weeks ago, the village busted a homeowner for raising chickens illegally, and wondered why that person hasn’t been punished. Steve Glinke, the village’s health and safety director, said that, while the village issued a citation, the matter still needs to go through an adjudication hearing currently scheduled for Nov. 16 at 8 a.m. Until then, there is nothing else the village could do.
In her presentation, Maxham touched on some of the common concerns around backyard chickens. None of the other towns allow roosters, and Forest Park won’t be an exception. Contrary to popular beliefs, hens lay eggs with or without roosters – it’s just that, without a rooster, the egg is not fertilized and can’t become a chick.
Hens don’t make as much noise as roosters, and, at 60-70 decibels, their noise is at about the same level as a human conversation. Chickens can catch diseases, and chicken fecal matter can attract rats – though Murtoff later said that it’s more due to rats being interested in eating fecal matter than chicken fecal matter specifically.
“[Chickens] can be smelly and messy,” Maxham said. “If you don’t clean up after them, like any animal, there is going to be a mess.”
There is also a risk of chickens attracting coyotes, but Maxham said that her research suggested that well-designed coops could mitigate that risk.
For the most part, homeowners aren’t allowed to slaughter chickens for food. The towns require chickens to be kept in a coop and require anyone who wants to raise chickens to get permits. Most cap the number of available permits, usually between 4 and 6. The towns also usually require a minimum of two chickens per yard, because “chickens get lonely.” Maxham said that, if Forest Park does legalize backyard hens, she would want it to be limited to single-family homes and have the permits attached to the individual homeowners rather than the property itself.
All towns require regular coop inspections. Some towns require permit applicants to notify their neighbors that they are planning to get chickens and/or get their neighbors’ consent.
Maxham said that the Forest Park Public Library already reached out to her about holding free classes educating would be backyard chicken owners about the ins and outs of raising chickens, and the Forest Park Garden Club is interested in providing assistance as well.
Resident Micki Leventhal wondered if the village had enough staff to handle the necessary inspections. Glinke said that, while the village had “1.5” building inspectors, he believed that it would be enough.
In response to residents’ questions, Murtoff said the western suburbs have veterinarian clinics that can treat chickens. She said that the way dogs react to chickens depends on factors such as dog breed and its temperament.
Resident Mike DiGilio brought a hand-drawn diagram showing that most of his neighbors on the 7000 block of Monroe Street were against allowing backyard chickens. He was among several opponents who argued that the presentation was “extremely one-sided” because it seemed to be tilted in favor of backyard chickens, with the only expert witness supporting backyard chickens – which led Maxham to wonder aloud what an anti-chicken expert would even look like.
“I think people who are experts on chickens are going to be, but the nature of that, kind of pro-chicken,” she said. “I don’t know how we can find an anti-chicken expert.”
Maxham emphasized that this was by no means decided.
“For me, it’s not just – yay, let’s get chickens,” she said. “It’s – if you get backyard chickens, we’re going to do it very carefully.”
When asked about the timeline for the process, Maxham said, “I don’t have a timeline in mind.”
“I don’t want to rush something,” she said. “I want to take the time and see a. what the majority of people want and b. we’re addressing the concerns the majority of people have.”
Glinke said he hopes that such town halls will serve as a model for how the village handles contentious issues.
“I hope this becomes a regular part of public engagement,” he said. “I have some subjective opinions about chickens, and that has no place here. This is where we have a rational discussion.”