Gobble! Gobble! Should Cities Regulate Backyard Turkeys?

Posted on November 26, 2014

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Hat tip to SAFEBuilt for contributing this timely article.

Urban Homesteading and the Policy Decisions Facing Cities


By: David M. Jirousek, AICP, at [email protected]

With Thanksgiving just a few days away and food seemingly on the mind for most of us, we thought we would take a few minutes to discuss the topic of urban homesteading. Urban homesteading is a newly coined term for a recent trend of sustainable food production in city and suburban environments that moves households toward self-sufficiency. Individual, family and community food production pre-dates factory farming and industrial agricultural practices. It is a practice that brings people closer to their food source and allows for a deeper understanding of food systems and nutrition. As city dwellers more frequently plant gardens and raise chickens and other small animals, urban populations are learning seemingly forgotten skills.

tumblr_mw2ehzjPqF1sxgdpyo1_400With the upswing of interest in urban homesteading comes the potential for criticism, fear of negative neighborhood impacts, and sometimes even strong disagreement. In jurisdictions across the country, it is now much more common for a code official or zoning administrator to receive inquiries concerning local codes and rules, mainly regarding the keeping of poultry and smaller breeds of livestock, such as goats and pigs- or this time of year, turkeys.

In Michigan for example, changes to the State of Michigan’s Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices (GAAMPs) were adopted in 2014. With this, local control of backyard chickens and other animals has been confirmed. No longer can owners of new or expanding livestock operations, even as small as an egg stand, be protected by the Right to Farm Act if the area is deemed “primarily residential” by the conditions listed in the GAAMPs manual.

homesteadingMany local governments now find themselves in the position to make important, and sometimes controversial, policy decisions concerning keeping of animals and family food production. As a result, there are a number of efforts to develop template regulations for local consideration. When local governments are open toward investigating the possibility of allowing urban livestock, or have made a policy decision in support of the practice, good planning practices would start with a review of methods to balance urban homesteading with valid community concerns. Some of the components of local regulations include the following:

  •  Definitions: Include clear definitions for all animal types. Clarity is essential to distinguish between what is a proper fit for a community and what is not.
  • Location: Certain zoning districts may be considered more appropriate than others. As an alternative, limiting factors may also be lot size, minimum setbacks or available open yard space.
  • Confinement: Communities must consider issues of confinement, whether or not to place restrictions on the location where animals may roam, graze, feed or be housed.
  • Manure Management: Manure management and general sanitation are a significant concern, especially when best practices are not followed.
  • Number and Type: Different species of poultry and animals have different needs relative to the amount of space available for adequate and humane living conditions. Additionally, the “density” of animals on a property can directly affect the quality of life of neighbors, in addition to the well-being of the animal. The urban environment itself is likely more appropriate for poultry and small animals over larger breeds of livestock.

This list of considerations is certainly not exhaustive. There are also a number of state and local agencies, nonprofits, community groups, and other organizations that have the technical expertise to assist with specifics of local regulations concerning urban homesteading. However, it is the role of the planner and code enforcement official, along with the appointed and elected officials, to review recent practices and available technical expertise. Similar to the development of all regulations that balance personal property rights, sustainability and the public interest, urban homesteading can be accommodated if embraced by the community. Among many exciting and interesting trends in our communities, the revival of urban homesteading is one to watch.    

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