In Iowa City, chickens are only for the wealthy
Friday, October 17, 2014
By Beth Cody, Writers’ Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen

My family has raised chickens since we moved to our five acres south of Iowa City, and we not only enjoy fresh eggs, but our children (and many other children who visit us) are fascinated by the chickens: endlessly watching them, petting them and taking turns feeding them.

So I was pleased when two years ago Iowa City finally allowed our city friends the same opportunity to keep chickens.

But I had no idea how onerous the legal requirements to do so were until someone mentioned that she wanted to keep chickens but that the fee to do so was $100.

I couldn’t believe it, so I looked at the “Urban Chicken Permit Application” on the City of Iowa City website, and found that it’s true: It costs $100 for the initial application fee. Apparently that does cover the first three years, although that’s not mentioned anywhere on the website or application.

But $100 out of pocket just to keep a few chickens? That’s more than it costs to feed several chickens for a whole year. My husband, who grew up on a farm, laughed disbelievingly upon hearing this.

I think it’s very sad that a city that loudly triumphs its support for the impoverished throws up such roadblocks to their independence. Many of our city’s residents, particularly immigrants who have grown up with chickens, would probably be amenable to keeping them. But these are precisely the residents who will shy off at the outsized fee.

And also at the involved paperwork, which seems designed to discourage residents whose first language isn’t English. The permit application process is a ludicrously demanding one, with numerous detailed conditions to be met, such as coop size, construction and location; prohibitions on selling eggs or chickens, slaughtering chickens or using straw for bedding; and four appended attachments to be completed.

But the most troubling of the city’s requirements is that all adjacent homeowners must give their written consent before a permit will be issued. Seriously? One curmudgeonly neighbor can prevent someone from exercising their rights on what is supposedly their own property?

Now, even as a libertarian, I understand the need for rules that help people to live near each other with minimum strife (although most libertarians think that zoning rules should be property-specific covenants that are agreed to privately by purchasers, rather than blanket laws imposed by authoritarian governments – laws that can be changed at any time, to the detriment of homeowners).   

But people should be able to do what they want with their property, as long as it doesn’t hurt the value of other people’s property. And many annoying activities don’t actually reduce property values: being an unfriendly, scowling neighbor; having ill-mannered teenagers that invite groups of similarly ill-mannered friends over for rude-fests; permanently parking an RV, boat or that dream Corvette in its non-running state in the driveway, hanging the laundry out to dry, etc. These things are annoying and make the neighborhood less pretty, but we don’t get to force our neighbors not to be annoying or dictate their aesthetic standards (at least, not without private covenants).

And if chickens require strict permitting, why not dogs? Dogs bark, can damage neighboring properties and can even be physically dangerous.

For that matter, we might as well require neighbors’ permission for having children. As any retiree will tell you, children are the biggest neighborhood nuisance.

Iowa City residents should not need anyone else’s permission to keep chickens on their property, subject to a simple zoning rule limiting their number, disallowing roosters and honoring complaints about smell. The Byzantine permitting requirements are absurd overkill, and the fees serve no purpose other than to exploit residents and simultaneously discourage them from enjoying their new-found rights.

But this ridiculous hyperconcern is sadly typical of city busybodies who, like Chicken Little, fully expect the sky to fall if residents are allowed any amount of freedom.