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Mebane city council decides on chicken provisions, again

Mebane’s city council wrestled again Monday night with a new ordinance to set some limits for residents owning chickens within city limits.

Council members alternated between wanting to protect the rights of “backyard farmers,” who have a few chickens, vs. an alternative view that residential homeowners have a right and expectation of keeping all “farm animals,” including chickens, out of their single-family neighborhoods.

At their July meeting, council members heard from residents, most of whom felt that the city was overreaching with a staff-developed ordinance that proposed to limit chickens (to eight per acre lot or 16 altogether), and to establish rigorous standards on what kind of chicken coups they should be housed in, and where on each owner’s property the coups or chicken runs should be situated.

Instead, by a 3-2 vote, the council tentatively adopted a simpler, more straight-forward provision offered by councilman Jonathan White that set the limit at 10 per each one-acre lot, or portion thereof, but dispensed with coup requirements, placement, and so forth.

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The primary requirement necessitating the matter to come back before the council was language to ensure that penalties were in effect for owners whose chickens stray off their property into a neighbor’s yard.

But the council found itself in a fundamental disagreement about whether the preliminary action, reflected in the pending proposed ordinance, was too lenient on the issue of chicken ownership, favoring chicken owners at the expense of their non-chicken-owning neighbors.

The discussion was initiated during opening “public comments” section of the meeting when members of the public are allowed to speak to the council on any matter.

Alan Stephenson, the former long-time chairman of the city’s planning board and the son of the city’s late mayor, Glendel Stephenson, made an impassioned plea that the purpose of city ordinances was to protect the city’s residents and their largest investment, the value of their homes.

Former planning board chairman Alan Stephenson

“Zoning exists to protect areas from harmful influence,” he said.  He argued that farms, commercial, and residential areas each had their own specified zoning, part of the purpose for which was to protect each from the encroachment from one of the other interests.

His view was that allowing chickens in residential areas was just the sort of encroachment that ordinances were designed to prevent.

Stephenson said other nearby municipalities had more reasonable limits, or prohibitions, on chickens than the proposed Mebane ordinance.

While Stephenson didn’t expressly outline the problem, it turns out his home at 709 West Stagecoach Road is beside the Mebane resident who apparently has the largest number of chickens in the city.

City manager Chris Rollins told council members that one property owner, later identified as Matthew Lowe and his Woodlawn Roots operation at 312 Woodlawn Road, was the resident whose farming operation has spurred all the city’s “recent” complaints about chickens – chickens loose and in other people’s yards, odors, and other complaints.

Matthew Lowe during the Mebane city council’s July 11 meeting.

Rollins told the council that his understanding is that there are as many as 60, 70, or even 80 chickens on the 2.56-acre parcels owned by Lowe.

At the July council meeting Lowe spoke against instituting a ceiling on the number of chickens a resident could own, and after that meeting, he refused to answer an Alamance News reporter’s question about exactly how many chickens he owns.

Later Monday night, when the council turned to a discussion of the pending ordinance carried over from its July meeting, Stephenson’s perspective was shared by councilman Tim Bradley and mayor Ed Hooks.

Hooks, as mayor, does not have a vote on the council (except in cases of ties), but he voiced his view “against chickens,” saying that the city regulates “every other animal” more than chickens. Homeowners can have only three dogs, for instance, he noted.

For his part, Bradley emphasized that established residential areas of Mebane “are not farming communities,” and that residents should be free from having their neighbors’ chickens coming into their yards or having the noise of chickens from adjacent yards.

Bradley, noting a recent decision of a neighbor on his street to have chickens underscored his view that there should be limits on the placement of chicken coups – he didn’t think they should be allowed right up to the property line – and wanted a lower ceiling on the number of chickens, wanting a absolute cap of 20, regardless of a chicken owner’s property size. (The pending ordinance had a limit of 10 per acre, or portion thereof.)

“Ten to 20 hens is a gracious plenty,” Bradley said.

Bradley said residents shouldn’t have to file a “nuisance complaint” with the city about a neighbor’s chickens, which he also suggested would ruin the relationship between the neighbors.

But Bradley’s motion to set a limit of 10 per acres, with an absolute maximum of 20 chickens, and require placement of chicken coups at least 10 feet from property lines (a parallel requirement to where many storage and utility buildings can be placed) failed on a 2-3 vote.

Bradley was joined by council member Katie Burkholder on the failed vote; but Jonathan White, who had initiated the pending proposal from the July meeting, voted against, as did Sean Ewing, and Montrena Hadley.

Ewing and Hadley had opposed the July motion – Ewing because he wanted a higher number of chickens, and Hadley because she said existing nuisance rules of the city were sufficient to govern complaints that arose.

Ewing then motioned to adopt the drafted ordinance, with one revision:  he proposed to strike the language that also equated other fowl – specifically turkeys, geese, and ducks – with the same limits as would apply to chickens, i.e., 10 per acre or portion thereof.

His motion won approval 3-2, from himself, White, and Burkholder, with Bradley and Hadley opposed.

Members generally agreed to leave unresolved a question on limits of turkeys, geese, and ducks because these pose more of a theoretical problem than an actual one.

Roosters are prohibited throughout the city, under the new ordinance, which is scheduled to take effect in 60 days.

Read background (from July 7, 2022 edition of The Alamance News) about city’s staff proposals for regulating number of chickens, placement of chicken coops, etc.:

Read also coverage from the July 14, 2022 edition on the city council’s first discussion of the issue:

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