Overland Park committee tables discussion on backyard hens

Overland Park's Community Development Committee tabled a discussion last week on adjusting regulations allowing backyard hens. Photo credit Scott Woods-Fehr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Dreams of backyard hens in northern Overland Park didn’t completely die at last week’s Community Development Committee meeting. But changes that would open up the possibility of keeping chickens for people living on less than a three-acre lot may be a longer time coming, if at all.

The city council committee members became deadlocked on whether to move forward with legal changes that could allow more chickens in the northern part of the city, where properties are smaller and interest is higher. The issue was lot size.

The city currently regulates hens through its planning department. As it now stands, people can have hens if they have at least three acres of land. Those on less than three acres have to go through a cumbersome process of appearing before the city planning commission to get a special use permit.

If they are successful, the next stop is the full city council.

The problem is most of the residents who make it that far have historically gotten turned down at the full council stage.

Lot size restrictions

However, some councilmembers who have been most adamantly opposed to residential hens in the past are no longer on the council. In August, councilmembers began to seek a way to approve hens on less than three acres that would be less frustrating for residents and less demanding of staff time.

Last Wednesday night, the committee considered whether to move hens out of the planning process and into animal control. That would have eliminated the need for the special use permit, giving residents the right to have a specified number of hens as long as they met setback and other standards.

The committee spent just over an hour debating the details. Overall, councilmembers agreed that the animal licensing idea was worth pursuing. But then they got hung up over how big a property should be able to get a license for hens.

The staff had recommended 1.5 acres – a lot size bigger than a football field – as the cutoff size, but Councilmember Chris Newlin pushed for smaller lots.

Newlin proposed chicken licenses could be granted on as little as a quarter acre, with two chickens allowed. The number of chickens would be increased in increments based on lot size, he suggested, all depending on meeting cleanliness and other chicken-keeping standards.

‘A split city’

The change was meant to correct the current ordinance, which favors the southern part of the city, he said. Since 2004, the city has had 17 applications for backyard chicken permits, the majority from northern Overland Park. However only four have been approved, and three of those were in a clutch at the extreme southern end of the city, south of 191st Street. The fourth was in northern Overland Park but was not renewed.

Those stats make it seem like, “we have a split city,” Newlin said. “The last thing I want is to create this rule of really having only one section of town having it easy.”

Councilmember Holly Grummert, who represents the northern part of the city, also noted the high interest in chickens in her area. “Ward 1 residents are interested in urban agriculture and victory gardens, and the chicken element adds into that lifestyle,” she said.

Noise, salmonella concerns

But some others on the committee were less supportive. Councilmember Stacie Gram said chickens can be a nuisance to neighbors because of noise, smell and salmonella risk, and enforcing the restrictions would prove to be logistical nightmare.

“I remain not a fan of backyard chickens,” she said.

Councilmember Tom Carignan also objected to the smaller lot sizes, saying they wouldn’t provide enough room.

But Newlin said even a one-acre requirement leaves out most people north of 135th Street, although he later suggested one acre as a compromise to move the idea forward.

Grummert said that would leave out too many people. “Why are we even bothering?” she said. “It’s people north of I-435 who have the smaller lots. People who have an acre lot, they’re not interested in doing it.”

Councilmember Faris Farassati said more research needs to be done on how other cities in the area handle chickens and what reasons the city would have for not allowing them.

Ultimately the idea was tabled, to be brought back at a yet-to-be-determined date.